During fall semester, all new students take GENS 175: Exploring Complex Questions, which introduces students to the liberal arts through collaborative, discussion-based courses.

Exploring Complex Questions is made up of learning communities, which include faculty from at least three different departments and explore a common topic or theme. You may have a shared syllabus, common texts or combined activities with the other classes in your learning community.

New students will receive an email survey in the summer and be able to pick the four learning communities that most interest them. This survey will be used to place students into classes.

2020 Learning Community Descriptions

What is a child? What is childhood? And who gets to be a child? When did you stop being a child? Are you still? How are childhoods and children's experiences framed by social, historical, geographic, and cultural contexts? This course addresses questions about how children can be treated, what is distinctive about the children’s stage(s) of life, what kinds of tools we can/should/do use to understand childhood and how children are theorized about, represented in art and literature, and included in academic research. The texts in the course draw from a range of disciplines (including film/art, philosophy, literature, and social scientific investigation). All sections will start with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and include texts like the documentary Babies, writings by Piaget and Montessori, and creative depictions of childhood. Over the course of the semester, talks by each of the participating faculty will help guide students’ exploration of these questions. Each talk will be followed by debriefing sessions with students from other sections within the learning community. If circumstances allow, students will interact with community organizations to facilitate understanding children's experiences in the Walla Walla Valley.

Inventing Others will study representations, desires, fears, and fantasies that define those judged to be "other." We will explore how peoples, places, and ideas are constructed for the purpose of creating difference. The course will focus on works from various media, including major theoretical texts such as Edward Said’s Orientalism and Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex. Students are invited to consider works that solicit and resist an understanding of the other, paying attention to the role of affect in frustrating meaning production. Over the semester, we will navigate through a complex network of questions such as “Who is the other?,” “What is the process of othering?,” and “How does the other resist?” Exploring film, contemporary performance, visual arts, and literature, we will examine how these questions are asserted and staged through language, affect, and form itself.  This interdisciplinary learning community is led by scholars of philosophy, race and gender studies, literatures, media and cultural studies, choreography, politics, and library science with additional interests and expertise in performance, punk rock music, Arabic, and activism. 

Though we frequently call something  “just” or “unjust,” we rarely reflect on these concepts themselves. What makes a government, a societal institution, or a cultural practice just or unjust?  How does the experience of injustice vary across contexts?  How can individuals respond to long-standing injustices? In short, what would it take to form a more just society?

To examine these questions, our sections will draw from a wide range of materials, including social science research, philosophy, literature, politics, and film. Two common texts will anchor our experience: W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which offers an analysis of racial injustice in early 20th century America, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which examines the construction of the traditional gender binary and the injustices that develop from it. Different sections will supplement these common texts with other accounts, interpretations, and responses to racial and gender-based injustices. Periodically, students will discuss these issues with their peers across different course sections. Students will also work in small groups to select, research, and analyze a concrete topic relating to issues of justice.

In examining these questions, we also aim to create a just community among ourselves--one that allows for respectful debate from diverse perspectives, and that affirms the issues and values that shape our individual experiences. 

What’s an animal? What’s a human? “Animal” is a creature, a language, a metaphor, a subject, an object, a meal. We love them… and we eat them. We wear them. We use animals to diminish other humans–and in the same breath, attribute voice and thought to our dogs. We put them in cages and walk them on leashes.  But can we see them for what they are?  Can we understand the mind and life of another creature...whether it has two legs, many legs, or none at all? Or can we only understand them for what they reflect back about ourselves? Our investigation into these questions will lead us to confront larger ethical issues surrounding our obligations to animals–and to each other. 

We will use the tools of academic discourse -- close reading, rigorous writing, robust discussion, and careful analysis -- to examine the animal from multiple angles, from poetry to children’s books to taxidermy, from the plate to the philosophical dialogue, from scientific texts to science fiction, and from wildlife documentaries to cat videos. This course exemplifies the liberal arts approach to complicated topics, drawing upon multiple academic fields to provide different kinds of insights. 

What does it mean to live a rich and complex life, intellectually and emotionally? Are you most yourself with others or alone?  How has our extra-ordinary experience of Covid-19 transformed how we are together and apart? In this course we will investigate the nature of thought as a collaborative, community practice as well as an individual expression. Through readings, discussion, field trips, postcard exchanges, and other activities we will expand your analytic and creative mind. Our journey will bring a variety of forms together, drawing from literature, anthropology, science studies, animal studies, visual art and performance, inviting you to craft your own answers and understand your role in society. Is the poet Rainer Marie Rilke convincing when he argues that creative activity and love both require solitude?  How do we conceive of community and solitude outside of the boundaries of the ordinary?  Are we foolish to think of ourselves as distinct? Theorist Donna Haraway suggests that being alive and human is a symphony of relatedness. What sort of music might such a symphony play when we recognize the role of non-humans in this ensemble?  These examples are a smattering of the engaging works and questions that will challenge us throughout the semester.

How do humans experience time? What approaches do various scientific, humanistic, and artistic disciplines use to measure, record, shape, and manage time? Why do physicists, mathematicians, musicians, poets, philosophers, and writers of scriptural texts employ such diverse methods when defining temporal phenomena? And how might those definitions, emerging from different cultural contexts, shape the way each of us builds a relationship with time? Working to explore these questions, we’ll sharpen and develop our reading, speaking, listening, writing, research, information literacy, and time management skills. Sections will be taught by individual instructors, but we will share a common reading schedule and common assignments, and we’ll periodically attend lectures and performances with the whole learning community. Texts will include physicist Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, essays by Virginia Woolf and sonnets by John Milton, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, selected recordings by the Beatles, creation stories from Genesis and the Rig Veda, historical accounts of the role jazz played in the American civil rights movement, a performance by a classical Indian music ensemble, and more.