In the first-year seminar “Build Your Own Westeros,” named after the setting in the popular Game of Thrones franchise, students have spent the semester studying dystopias and utopias, peering through global and historical lenses to examine how societies are organized and what those structures mean.
“Culture should not be thought of as a means of differentiation, but rather an opportunity to participate in a different meaning-making process, which is open to anyone who is curious enough to ask questions that reveal how a different group of people make sense of the world,” explains Professor of German Area Studies Eric Klaus, who designed and teaches the course.
Engaging with scholarly texts, fictional creations and real-world examples, students make connections across disciplines and genres while creating their own fictional worlds, to be presented at the annual FSEM symposium. In small teams, students produced essays, designed digital maps and developed presentations highlighting their worlds’ practices, traditions, history and cultural make-up.
“For the entire semester, we have been working toward this project. It was really interesting, and like nothing I have ever done before,” says Meredith Kehoe ’22, whose team created the fictional world “Pudol,” an underwater utopia inspired by the group’s passion for the environment. “As my group and I began to brainstorm the kind of world we wanted to create, we knew we wanted nature to be involved. We also decided that we wanted our world to be a society that gives back, and lives harmoniously with its surroundings.”
To build community and help first-years gain experience presenting in preparation for the FSEM symposium, Klaus invited former students to attend the class and offer feedback. Bailey DiSanto ’21, who took the seminar as a first-year and is a Writing Colleague for this semester’s class, notes that the project not only “pushed me to work outside of my comfort zone and create something that I was passionate about…[but] also taught me an important lesson in cultural differences. Sometimes you need a travel guide to help explain things, and other times it is up to you to do the research.”
Along with skills in writing, analysis, public presenting and interdisciplinary inquiry, Klaus says the course challenges students in the seminar to understand how meaning-making happens on both the individual level and on broader societal and cultural levels.
In applying those lessons to life at HWS, DiSanto says she “was able to navigate and appreciate the campus culture much easier, and appreciate the variety of [experiences among] students more.”
For Morgan Willis ’22, “the skills and imagination I used in this class will help me in my studies and in my future. I have this dream of writing a book someday, so this world creation was a great way to get a taste of this.”