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.

2021 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.

Participating faculty: Melissa Clearfield, Patrick Frierson, and Jenna Terry

This seminar introduces students to the liberal arts through an interdisciplinary discussion of the locus of a moving, experiencing self as the foundation of cognition and being in the world--the body. The course includes interdisciplinary plenaries that explore both text and movement in the form of somatic/dance practices. Both textual analysis and movement investigate the body's relationship to power as both shaped by, and resisted through, religion, race, gender, and dis/ability. Through exploration of the body historically and politically at both the local and global level, the course begins with and continually returns to the most basic question: What is the body? How do the boundaries of the body exist in intersection with the environment and/or with other soma, which is the body’s interactions with organisms at the environmental and cellular level? What constitutes the body in a world increasingly shaped by environmental risk, climate change, and nuclear waste? How is the body a site of memory, trauma, or resistance?

Participating faculty: Peter de Grasse, Jason Pribilsky, Daniel Schultz, and Elyse Semerdjian

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. 

Participating faculty: Timothy Doyle, Kazi Joshua, Helen Kim, and Carlos Vargas-Salgado

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. 

Participating faculty: Jakobina Arch, Rebecca Hanrahan, Sarah Hurlburt, Maria Lux, and Adeline Rother

Although “translation” is often understood only to mean rendering words (written or spoken) in one language into another, it carries other shades of meaning, including expressing something in a different medium or form; converting or adapting something to another context, system, or even use; and moving a person or thing from one place or position elsewhere. This learning community will examine different conceptions of translation, exploring what unites these disparate understandings of translation–the movement across, beyond, or over–whether this movement is linguistic, scientific, or metaphorical. What happens in the process of translation? What is lost? Can something be gained? What societal forces shape what is translated and by whom? Alongside works about (and, perhaps, in) translation in various media, such as global literary fiction, international film, theatrical or musical productions, and podcasts, we will study relevant theories of knowledge that ask us to think about how ideas, words, and people change when moved from one context to another. The story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges will be common to all sections, though texts across sections might vary. While individual sections may differ in methodology and approach, each will remain grounded in the possibilities that translation opens in our thinking, our selves, and our relations with others.

Participating faculty: Chetna Chopra, Lydia McDermott, Libby Miller, Lauren Osborne, and Zahi Zalloua

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.

Participating faculty: Sharon Alker, Eunice Blavascunas, Justin Lincoln, Dan Schindler, and Rob Schlegel

How do humans experience time? That is, how do they perceive it, both as individuals and in the context of their social interactions? What approaches do various scientific, humanistic, and artistic disciplines use to measure, segment, and label time? How do physicists, mathematicians, poets, and philosophers define temporal phenomena differently, and how do their methods overlap? What questions, and what answers about duration, free will, mortality, and the nature of reality emerge from the texts we encounter? And how do those questions and answers shape our own? We’ll work to explore these questions, to discover a variety of answers to those questions, and to consider and reconsider various arguments in support of those answers. In doing so, 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 group activities with the whole learning community. Texts will include physicist Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time; scientific articles on humans’ sensory perception of time, sound, and rhythm; readings on the history of chronometry and on the concept of rhythm; Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway; sonnets by poets of the past and present; selections from Augustine’s Confessions; stories by Ted Chiang; and more.

Participating faculty: Theresa DiPasquale, Moira Gresham, Kirsten Nicolaysen, Johanna Stoberock, and John Stratton