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Exploring Complex Questions Learning Communities

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.

2022 Learning Community Descriptions

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, culture, 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? How is the body a site of memory, trauma, or resistance?

Participating Faculty: Patrick Frierson, Elyse Semerdjian, Xiaobo Yuan

Where did humans come from? What makes us the way we are? What does it even mean to be human? In this learning community, we explore both the long history of the human species and the diversity of humankind using nonfiction, fiction, scientific data, oral histories, and maps. To begin, we will focus on human origins, using origin stories from different cultures as well as the body of physical evidence that makes up the biological and geological record. Then we'll explore the boundaries of humankind, considering what humans have in common, as well as what makes us think of ourselves as different - both from each other and from the non-human world. Throughout the course, we will return to a set of overarching questions: What are humans?  What seems to separate us from animals, gods, or machines? Are there any defining characteristics of humans? Who decides who or what is human? How is humanity situated in time, and in space? How, as biased observers, can we decide what is true about our species?  Our learning community will share a common set of readings and themes and will come together periodically as a group to share in plenary lectures or activities with other sections.

Participating Faculty: Nick Bader, Arielle Cooley, Wally Herbranson, Nina Lerman

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: Tim Doyle, Delbert Hutchison, Kazi Joshua, Rosie Mueller, Carlos Vargas-Salgado

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: Sally Bormann, Chetna Chopra, Rachel George, Lydia McDermott, Rob Schlegel, Nicole Simek, Zahi Zalloua

What does it mean to tell a story? What roles can stories play in learning about ourselves, understanding others, and making sense of the world around us? How do stories shape and perpetuate cultural “knowledge” and who gets to tell those stories? How can technology help us tell more inclusive and creative stories? This course addresses these questions and more through a range of disciplinary perspectives and storytelling experiments. Students will examine stories – and stories about stories – in verbal, visual, performative, and digital forms, with the goal of developing nuanced understandings of these questions through academic study and creative storytelling projects. Along with examining existing stories, source material by and concerning Indigenous peoples of the region, factual stories told through science writing, and work by Kim TallBear, Jennifer Haley, and Beth Piatote, students will be encouraged to create their own stories through essays, digital media, and performance through Whitman’s Immersive Stories Lab. Guided by talks from faculty with expertise in film and media, theater, computer science, and writing, the entire learning community will collaborate to explore ways of becoming nuanced and ethical storytellers attuned to the power and responsibility that stories hold.

Participating Faculty: William Bares, Kathryn Frank, Daniel Schindler, Jenna Terry

How do humans experience time? How do we perceive it, measure it, record it, and organize it, both individually and in society? By examining the nature and experience of time, what can we learn about meaning in life and the significance of human mortality, about free will, and about our ethical obligations to the past and to the future? As we consider these kinds of questions, we'll also develop and refine some of the skills that will be essential throughout your time at Whitman: careful reading, open-minded listening, productive discussion, clear and insightful writing, and information literacy and research. Each section will explore the theme in different ways, but we will all read selections from physicist Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, geologist Marcia Bjornerud's Timefulness, Augustine's Confessions, Avishai Margalit's The Ethics of Memory, and stories by Ted Chiang.

Participating Faculty: Mitch Clearfield, Theresa DiPasquale, Moira Gresham, Johanna Stoberock

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