Making Powerful Arguments
GENS 176: Making Powerful Arguments teaches students to write and speak persuasively, with the support of rigorous, research-based evidence. You get to choose a course that interests you, and participate in thought-provoking debates guided by our expert faculty.
About registration: Students will register for their spring seminar before registering for the rest of their spring courses. On Thursday October 13, students will be emailed a survey asking for their top 5 ranked choices. The survey will remain open for one week before the registrar starts placing students in sections on Friday October 21.
How They Say His Name: Adapting the “Candyman” figure from 1985-present
Section A: M, W, F 9-9:50 AM
In 2021, Nia DaCosta partnered with Jordan Peele to right one of modern horror cinema’s wrongs by releasing a new sequel to the classic slasher film Candyman. On its own, the ’92 Candyman delights horror fans; students who recognize the elements of fiction, legend, scholarship, and journalism which influenced the making of that text will likely find it downright astonishing. Almost thirty years later, DaCosta revived the franchise with startling urgency, updating the Candyman tale by fusing it with a tagline from the Black Lives Matter movement, “Say Their Names.” Beginning with Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, we will study the evolution of Candyman from its origins in a very short story to becoming a four-film franchise. In the process, you will write papers on questions of your own devising, focusing on how these teams of artists blend fiction and fact and to what aesthetic and political ends.
Note: Slasher films are violent and gory; furthermore, the production team of the 2021 Candyman invite discussions about anti-Black violence in the contemporary US. If you have questions about whether the content of this course is appropriate for you, please contact Professor Leise at email@example.com.
Section B: M, W, F 9-9:50 AM
Does science have a communication problem? Is science represented and discussed in ways that discourage groups of people from pursuing their curiosity to know more about the natural world? Does sharing scientific discoveries with the general public inform or confuse readers? This course will use classic science fair projects to initiate conversations about curiosity, scientific communication, visual representations of information, and the creative aspects of scientific discoveries. We will assemble projects such as volcanoes, basic batteries, and perhaps a hovercraft to build technical writing assignments focusing on clarity, important details, and conveying an interpretation of the results. There will be a research project using the library and information literacy to redraft a class report into a piece intended for the non-specialist audience. In addition, the readings for this class will fall in two broad categories: brief scientific journal articles written for specialists or non-specialists to compare approaches to each audience, and articles and book excerpts focusing on cognition, learning, and rhetoric in the context of scientific curiosity. The course is for students who once liked science and lost that spark of curiosity over time, or who have maintained their wonder of the natural world to explore a science related major at Whitman.
Microphone Check, 1, 2: Music, Technology, and Narrative.
Section D: M, W, F 10-10:50 AM
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new phenomenon captured the public imagination, something experienced by no peoples in previous history: recorded music. As new technological developments allowed for the reproduction and distribution of audio recordings, the nature of music itself changed. No longer would those fortunate enough to attend a concert claim sole ownership of the musical experience, but now anyone with access to a phonograph could also experience this singular moment in time.
This course will explore the impact of technology on music and its narratives, from the development of the phonograph and wireless radios to the reappropriation of the phonograph through turntablism as a new tool for discourse. In using these technological tools in innovative ways, musicians, engineers and producers created new worlds through which to communicate their ideas and narratives. Through study of recorded works, writings, and films, we will critically examine the intersection of music, technology, and narrative, including issues surrounding appropriation. Works may include those by A Tribe Called Quest, David Byrne, Public Enemy, Jimmy Hendrix, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Lauryn Hill, Miles Davis, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Hanif Abdurraqib, Amanda Petrusich, and more.
Explorations in Empathy
Section E: M, W, F 1-1:50 PM
Empathy is a term with a wide range of meanings, though it is most often defined as the capacity to understand what another person is thinking and feeling, grounded in an acknowledgement of their unique perspective. In this class, we will explore the following questions: Why are so many academic disciplines interested in the phenomenon of empathy, and how do their approaches to it differ? What sorts of verbal and nonverbal behaviors promote (and prohibit) the experience of empathy? What are the implications of premising models of empathy on sameness rather than otherness? How does empathy relate to attention and listening? Is empathy always a good thing? What are the limitations, or pitfalls, of empathy? In order to address these questions, we will read work from authors such as Hannah Arendt, bell hooks, Thich Nhat Haan, Jenny Odell, Elaine Scarry, Carl Rogers, Cornel West and others. Class assignments will include active participation in discussion, in-class writing activities, collaborative peer editing, and two written projects that require revision.
Thinking Through Games
Section F: M, W, F 11-11:50 AM
Games are a foundational form of human activity, and the philosophical study of games reveals structure and limits within our form of agency. We will open the semester with a careful reading of C. Thi Nguyen’s 2020 book Games: Agency as Art, allowing our deepened understanding of games to help us analyze a wide range of social and political phenomena. For the second half of the term we’ll turn our attention to areas of human activity often thought to be illuminated through the concept of games: language/communication, and conflict/war. In these later units we’ll consider: the philosophical notion of a language game, games that play out in the structure of language itself (e.g., medieval obligationes), academic and policy analyses of the cold war and nuclear conflict in terms of games, and games and artistic works that depict these conflicts as games, e.g., Doctor Strangelove, War Games, and the board game Twilight Struggle. Alongside more traditional academic readings we will also play lots of games, design games, and reflect on experiences of game play and design as they relate to our more theoretical readings. This course may meet jointly at times with the class “Game Design: Gamification and Play” when the topics align.
Game Design: Gamification and Play
Section G: M, W, F 11-11:50 AM
Starting with philosopher C. Thi Nguyen’s book Games: Agency As Art, we will see that when we play games, we adopt the incentives and intentions of the game designer. We replace our own complicated value system with the simplified value system of the game. We will play games and reflect through writing and discussion on our interactions with those games in the context of Nguyen’s ideas. We will move on to develop a taxonomy of games. We will finish the course with readings about game design and extending the ideas to the gamification of other systems, e.g. education, capitalism, government. What’s gained or lost when we gamify a system? What does “play” look like in our gamified educational system? Who wins? Who loses? This course may meet jointly at times with the class “Thinking Through Games” when the topics align.
The Fairy Tale: Enchantment and Change
Section H: M, W, F 11-11:50 AM
The term “fairy tale” gets thrown around in all sorts of contexts, usually to describe something that is so perfect that most of us can hardly dream of experiencing it. But the worlds of actual fairy tales are rarely places we’d want to end up: violence is literal; the vulnerable are targeted; and gaps in logic make it difficult to understand how to navigate life safely. And yet, within the dangerous spaces of these enchanted worlds, those who are most vulnerable resist oppression, finding ways to use magic as a vehicle for social change. We will begin the semester by focusing on the work of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault in order to consider how the fantastical functions as both enforcer and disrupter of cultural norms. We will then look at contemporary and near contemporary retellings of classic tales and the ways in which adjustments in focus and style allow the tales to become containers for questions that resonate within our current time. Writers will include the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Kate Bernheimer, Maria Tatar, and others. Assignments will include essays, a class presentation, and a final writing portfolio.
Note: Fairy tales often ask readers to engage with narratives that hinge on violence, including sexual violence. I encourage you to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) should you have questions about this aspect of the tales as you consider choosing the course.
Section I: M, W, F 1-1:50 PM
In this class we explore a range of genres in which creators and characters push identity boundaries, seeking physical or spiritual transformation. The fears, desires and hopes expressed in the texts and visual sources will stimulate discussions, analyses and writings. Our exploration of texts is organized around three broad themes. The individual transformation unit includes the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, Jim Dine’s sculpture “Carnival” (located on the Whitman campus), a 19th century Chinese female playwright’s piece involving gender fluidity, and some modern songs. The unit on spiritual mutability includes writings by early Buddhist nuns from India, ancient Chinese shamanic poetry, and exploration of a Japanese pilgrimage. The unit on socio-cultural identities includes Red: A Haida Manga by Yahgulanaas, some Chinese short stories about ghosts and fox spirits, the film All About My Mother by Almodóvar, a foray into quantum physics, and a Chinese female revolutionary’s motivational writings. We then move to the adventures of the transforming Chinese character Monkey (Sun Wukong) to help us draw links across the three themes. For the end of the semester, students will help choose a final film that also links all three themes.
Living a good life when you’re not in the Good Place
Section J: TuTh 11:30-12:50
Section K: MW 1-2:20
At the beginning of this school year, news headlines are filled with stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the droughts and fires in the American West, devastating flooding in Pakistan, a water crisis in Mississippi, worries about increased political radicalization and violence in the US and around the world, and, of course, the continuing Covid pandemic. We are, in other words, pretty far from living in The Good Place. So what are we to do? How do we try to live good lives when we’re living amidst so much struggle? In this course, we’ll consider this question, using the NBC sitcom The Good Place to help orient our discussions. Some of the topics that we will discuss include what obligations we have toward others and toward addressing structural wrongs present in our society, why and how friendships matter in a good life, the role of trustworthiness in our media-infused lives, and whether it even makes sense to think about the notion of a good life at all.
Section M: T, Th 10-11:20 AM
In a post Roe vs. Wade era, questions of reproductive rights are urgent, but is the political framework of pro-choice vs. pro-life adequate for the next generation of activists? Founded by Black women, Indigenous women, and women of color, reproductive justice combines reproductive rights with social justice to expand the analytical framework of reproductive politics. SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
In this course we will draw upon the scholarly literature on reproductive justice to engage pressing questions like: Why do Black and Indigenous women face higher rates of maternal mortality? What is at stake in sex education curricula debates? How is poverty a reproductive justice issue? What family formations are possible through queering reproductive technologies? We will read texts including short stories, policy reports, feminist theory, medical journal articles, manifestos, ethnographies and protest art. Each student will hone their ability to write powerful and persuasive arguments supported by evidence. Throughout the semester we will use class discussion and reflective writing to imagine, and argue for, a more just world.
Radical Reactions: Chemistry that Changed the World
Section N: T, Th 10-11:20 AM
This course will explore major breakthroughs in chemistry that transformed the 19th and 20th centuries and shape the world we live in. Students will study, discuss, and write about the often radical social, economic, political, and environmental changes that are brought about by scientific advancements. The complicated sets of factors motivating these breakthroughs will also be interrogated. Whenever possible, the myth of scientific creation will be measured against the historical record in the hopes of elucidating the legacy of these discoveries. For example, how can a chemical reaction that has saved untold millions from starvation also be used to make bombs? These topics will be addressed through the examination of argumentative writing from the natural science, humanities, and social sciences. Students will experience how evidence is used to support thesis-driven arguments across different disciplines and will develop their ability to do the same.
Section O: T, Th 10-11:20 AM
In parts of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand it is common practice at public meetings and events to recognize the Indigenous inhabitants of that land and their historical dispossession. Our seminar will explore this practice of “land acknowledgement” as an entry point for thinking about the complex relationships between land and power in settler states. Moving across the fields of visual culture, poetry, performance, history, law and earth sciences, we will ask: What or when is land? To whom does it belong? How has it appeared through Indigenous and settler systems of knowledge? To what end? Our class will also examine the conventions and constraints of acknowledging colonized land: How do people acknowledge it? Is acknowledgement effective? For what? What are the lines between acknowledgement, reclamation, and repair? Finally, our seminar will experiment with making arguments about, and creative forms of, land relations that unsettle existing power dynamics. Students who are curious about landscape imagery, public culture, colonialism, ecology, and indigeneity will be interested in this section.
Section P: T, Th 2:30-3:50 PM
The American prison system has some obvious flaws that are easy to criticize. But it is much more difficult to come to a deeper understanding of why that system is the way it is, and to determine what a better alternative would look like. In this class, we will work toward that kind of deeper understanding, of both the theory and practice of incarceration. We will examine the history and potential purposes of imprisonment, including deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution (just deserts). We will learn from first-person experiences of people who are incarcerated and their families, and from a century of prison newspapers from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. We will look at the role the prison system plays in the larger society, especially the argument that its function is to reinforce racial hierarchy. And we will consider potential reforms and replacements to the current system, drawing on comparisons with the practices of other countries, ideas from restorative or transformative justice, and various forms of prison abolitionism.
The Social Gaze
Section Q: T, Th 11:30 AM-12:50 PM
What is the “social gaze”? How can it help you to better understand the world around you? This course introduces you to themes and concepts that are key to understanding and writing about major social issues. Merging scholarly readings of important thinkers with a selection of classic and contemporary films, documentaries, and TV series, this course encourages you to view real-world situations, such as inequality, mass incarceration, collective movements, the digital revolution, and climate change, through a social gaze, bridging a strong connection between what the scholarly texts tell us about social and cultural issues, and what film, television, and visual media reveal. Thus, visual materials will familiarize you with key features of the social gaze about current social and cultural issues and help you to develop and use your own social gaze. So, you will not only be reading and discussing texts about, for instance, what social deviance is, how social ties are established, or the different types of stigma, but also you will simultaneously “see” how these phenomena occur in the selected visual materials. Throughout the semester, along with class discussions, there will be a series of workshops in which you will work on your analytical and writing skills, from topic selection to argument formulation to writing and editing of a final paper on a social problem of your choice.
Not Just About Us: Humans and More
Section R: T, Th 11:30 AM-12:50 PM
What does it mean for humans to radically replace themselves, rather than taking center stage? Does it open up possibilities for human agency and change? For agency of a “more than human” world? Humans have frequently turned to fables and allegories to speak to and about power, a topic in our first unit. It is dangerous to talk about limiting the king’s power but not to tell a story about putting a bell on a cat so prey can escape. Unit two includes how humans have looked outside their everyday experience to the supernatural and the super powered. In the Chinese text Journey to the West, a human-like divine is transformed into Pigsy but super-powered Monkey King glories in his eternal monkey nature. In unit three we will consider the concept of a “more-than-human world” in which plants and animals are subjects with agency and engage in communities of their own, as well as in community with humans. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a world in which being mentored by plants and belonging to a nation under trees is part of a way forward to biodiversity and ecological hope for the planet.
Section S: T, Th 1-2:20 PM
Some scholars suggest that because Homer had few literary precursors he looked to the stars for inspiration and influence. More recently, poet Fred Moten cites the composer Cole Porter as a source for his poetry collection The Feel Trio. According to Greil Marcus, even the Sex Pistols did not escape the grasp of influence, as he traces the British punk band's influences back to the Knights of the Round Table. Does this suggest there are no authentically original works of art? What does “original” even mean? How do these concerns shape our ideas about creative influence, identity and inheritance? We will use the study of influence as a lens through which to read and discuss poems, music, paintings and film. In the first part of this seminar, we will identify themes and stylistic patterns between works by a variety of writers, musicians and artists. In the second half, students will be invited to create their own self-directed reading list in order to trace thematic, stylistic, and formal influences of one of their favorite texts from outside of class.
NOTE: the final 3 weeks of this course will take place on Zoom.
Projecting a self
Section T: T, Th 1-2:20 PM
What does it mean to create a self? How is a self projected from desire and agency, individual and community, voice and action? How might that creative process and product be given life by and beholden to others? How can impacting a community be expression and nourishment of individual creativity? What happens when the freedom to create is thwarted? Drawing upon Simone de Beauvoir’s “freedom that must invent its goals”, Audre Lorde’s “erotic as power”, and Langston Hughes’s “dream deferred”, this course looks at the challenges, necessities, risks, and satisfactions of project in selfhood. Course texts offer scholarly frameworks and applications for these ideas, as well as narrate a trajectory toward and from awakening desire and selfhood in literature and film. Like many projects which arise from struggle, these texts include reference to and depictions of difficult material; class discussion will address the function of this difficult material directly. The course will center female-authored portrayals from Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Nella Larsen, and Shirley Jackson, among others. Through analysis and interpretation of these texts, students will build evidence-based arguments about the complex relationships between constructions and contexts of the self, presenting to the class an immersive and sustained hybrid written-creative project of their own.
Monsters and Predators: Rethinking Humans’ Place in the World through the Monstrous Animal "Other"
Section U: T, Th 1-2:20 PM
What happens when humans are figuratively and literally no longer the “top of the food chain”--when aliens invade, monstrous animals attack, or when humans become prey? This course uses the overlapping figures of the animal and the monster (both “others” that we use to define ourselves) to destabilize Western views of human superiority over the non-human world, as well as hierarchies within human cultures that are justified through parallel attitudes towards animals. Using popular films like Jurassic Park, Jaws, and District 9, true stories like Val Plumwood’s eco-feminist account of surviving a crocodile attack, or a novel about animals getting revenge against poachers, the texts in this course connect with a wide range of scholarly disciplines to illuminate a new perception of ourselves.
Grave Matters: Burial, Exhumation, and Encounters with the Dead
Section W: M, W 2:30-3:50 PM
How do we bury our dead? When and why are the bodies of human beings exhumed? How do our ancestors call out to us from beyond the grave? These questions animate a variety of literary, historical, anthropological, scientific, and political texts. We’ll seek answers by reading and analyzing plays, poems, literary criticism, ethnographic and historical studies; we’ll deepen our understanding by engaging in lively discussion and thoughtful academic writing; and we’ll work across disciplines, sharing ideas and arguments about human identities and cultures, the dignity of human remains, dramatic representations of conflict, and the relationship between living people and the members of generations past. We will begin by reading and discussing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and a book about the controversies that ensued following the discovery (not far from Walla Walla in 1996) of the skeleton variously known as “Kennewick Man” or “The Ancient One.” We’ll proceed to read, view, and study texts including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl’s serious farce Ola Nā Iwi ( The Bones Live), poems by the English poet John Donne, and texts on such subjects as exhumation practices in early modern England, African American funeral traditions, and green burial.
Guns: A Cultural Ballistics
Section X: M, W 2:30-3:50 PM
Anthropologists observe ways societies orient their material and symbolic lives around key objects, be they cattle in eastern Africa, machetes in Melanesia, or salmon among Pacific Northwest Native peoples. In the United States, that cultural object might arguably be the gun. Over 400 million firearms exist in the U.S. – more than one gun per person; And while the country accounts for about 5 percent of the world population, it possesses over 40 percent of global guns. These figures invite a study of the centrality of guns that extends beyond a consideration of their utilitarian value. While attentive to political debates (e.g., Second Amendment protections versus gun control), this course prioritizes the social and material lives of firearms to understand their centrality to a diverse spectrum of Americans. It also addresses the saturation of guns in American thinking about civil rights, security, and individual liberty. By contrast, global gun cultures will be explored to question the uniqueness of guns in the US. Students will engage the topic through a variety of sources: ethnography, journalism, policy briefs, speculative fiction, and film and social media. Assignments will include op-eds, interview analyses, and journaling.
James Baldwin’s America
Section Y: M, W 2:30-3:50 PM
Perhaps more than any other author of the 20th century, the work of African American writer James Baldwin has probed the enduring contradictions of America’s troubled history with race and the legacies of slavery. Drawing from both his literary and non-fiction work, the course explores how Baldwin excavates, confronts, and rewrites his own story and the story of America through the lens of race and sexuality. We will consider the political dimensions of Baldwin’s autobiographical writing and study the ways Baldwin reads the racial imaginary of literature and film. Students will learn to analyze how forms of literary and visual representation produce, rank, and value racial difference. The course will also incorporate the perspectives of Baldwin’s interlocutors, in addition to exploring contemporary voices that engage enduring problems of race.
Sites of Memory: The Whitman Mission and the “Massacre” of 1847
Section ZA: T, Th 2:30-3:50 PM
When physician Marcus Whitman along with his wife, Narcissa, established a Christian mission in the Walla Walla Valley, they envisioned healing and converting the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indians, not being killed by them. Since “The Whitman Massacre” of 1847, the couple has been mythologized and demonized with the debate about their memory and commemoration raging until today. In this course, we will examine the history and legacy of the Whitmans as it has been understood by the descendants of the early settlers, the progeny of the offended native groups, and others by examining documents and artifacts of their era as well as written and artistic renderings generated later to come to a nuanced and complex understanding of their history and legacy. In doing so, we will read different historical accounts, look at documents in the archives of the Penrose Library, examine artifacts in the Maxey Museum, and visit historical sites in the Walla Walla Valley. We will process the knowledge we gain by weighing conflicting evidence, analyzing the different and changing views of the Whitmans, and ultimately considering the memorialization of Marcus and Narcissa in this place where we live and learn together all while learning how to write argumentatively.
Section ZB: M, W 2:30-3:50 PM
The term posthumanism suggests uneasiness with the representation of human subjectivity and doubts about the self-evidence of what constitutes human nature. From Donna Haraway, who championed the self as cyborg, to the hit AMC show The Walking Dead, philosophers, scientists, and artists have encouraged us to question our understanding of the human condition and to envision how we might live differently together in a “post”-human world. In our course, we will ask: how did we become posthuman? Or conversely, and more skeptically, are “we” posthuman? What might it mean to live a posthuman life in the “Anthropocene,” this era in which human activity has become the determining factor influencing climate and the environment? In search of answers to these questions, we will take up four figures—cyborgs, animals, objects, and excluded, racialized human “others”—who will help us think critically about the stakes involved in drawing lines between the human and the inhuman, as well as the promises and pitfalls of the posthuman futures we might strive to bring about.