+ First Year Seminars – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \


Orientation 2021 is being planned as an in-person, four day event for incoming first-year and transfer students. COVID-19 related restrictions continue to evolve, and as new information becomes available, it will be added to the appropriate Orientation webpages.

FSEM students

First Year Seminars provide a foundation for our students’ intellectual lives both inside and outside the classroom by helping them to develop critical thinking and communication skills and practices; to enculturate themselves within the Colleges’ intellectual and ethical values and practices; and to establish a strong network of relationships with peers and mentors on campus. The seminar topics vary each year, as do the professors who teach them, so the classroom discussions are always fresh and interesting.

Each Seminar is constructed around a different interest, like magic, social responsibility or country music, and Seminar classes are small – usually about 15 students – which helps students feel more comfortable in a new environment and allows the students and faculty members to develop close working relationships.

Below, you will find a list of the First-Year Seminars being offered during the fall semester. This year’s Seminars cover a wide-range of topics and disciplines, and we are sure you will find several that interest you. After you have looked over the list and identified the courses that you find appealing, log in to the Orientation website and complete the Academic Direction Task.

First-Year Seminar Classes


FSEM 004 Outsider Women: Activists, Artists, and Outspoken Women in American Popular Culture, Elizabeth Belanger
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”- Audrey Lorde. This writing instructive class examines ‘outsider women:’ women who worked to expose and heal deep political, economic and social rifts in American society, especially over issues of gender and racial justice, through the lens of popular culture in 20th century. Looking at popular texts produced by and about women including film, music, propaganda, and popular periodicals we’ll ask: What forms of pop culture have been specifically targeted at women? What kinds of fears or anxieties about women did pop culture elicit and how did Americans negotiate those anxieties? How have women resisted or co-opted the messages they have received? How have ‘outsider’ women attempt to resolve long-standing political, social and economic issues regarding gender and racial justice? The course takes an interdisciplinary perspective on the questions above using students own expertise as consumers of popular culture as an entryway for exploring the diverse roles popular culture has played in 20th century history. In doing so, this class will be a space for critical engagement and dialogue regarding how forms of popular culture resist, respond to, and reveal the conundrum of race, gender, and sexuality in the 20th century. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 005 Trust and Betrayal, Karen Frost-Arnold
Trust between people makes life worth living, and yet trusting others makes us vulnerable to betrayal. This seminar explores the nature of trust and betrayal, as well as related questions of power, morality, and knowledge: How do I know whom to trust? What makes someone trustworthy? How does prejudice influence whom we trust and distrust? By examining situations in which trust was betrayed by doctors who experimented on humans, corporations who manipulated science to make a profit, and business professionals whose conflicts-of-interest undermined the national economy, students will study the role of social institutions and personal morality. We will also study a variety of vexing questions that we find in our daily lives and in television and film… What is a trusting romantic relationship? Does it make sense to trust a vampire or a gangster? Am I trustworthy?

FSEM 006 Sewing and Social Justice, Kirin Makker
This seminar introduces students to sewing as a social justice practice. Focusing on mending and upcycling, this course will guide students through a semester-long upcycling project using textiles from their wardrobe and donated fabric. Through making, reading, and writing, we will unpack the concept of ‘repair’ as a physical action and social process. Readings will explore slow stitching, craftivism, feminist art, and community arts. Writing assignments culminate in two main pieces: a basic research paper related to the history of their textile choices and a fictional piece written from the perspective of their upcycled sewn project. No sewing experience necessary.

FSEM 011 Britpop: From the Beatles to Brexit, Robert Carson
Pop music, by definition, is music of the moment: it crystallizes a specific point in space and time and preserves it in three glorious minutes of song. In this class, we’ll immerse ourselves deeply in the history of British pop music from World War II up to the present day—from Vera Lynn to Dua Lipa, from the Kinks to the Clash, from David Bowie to Harry Styles, from the Specials to Stormzy—and we’ll use this remarkable playlist as a lens to examine how British culture has evolved over the past seventy-five years. British culture can sometimes feel accessible and familiar to Americans, but in other cases it can feel altogether foreign and impenetrable. By casting our imaginations overseas for a semester, we will engage in an in-depth conversation with a culture that is a close cousin to our own; and if all goes as planned, we will come to see American culture through fresh eyes as well. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 021 Class Matters, Renee Monson
I will use the concept of class as the organizing framework or prism through which we will explore social structure, culture, social institutions, and social inequality. My intent is to ensure that from here on out, whenever you want to get to know a new place or a new set of people, you will ask: “What is the class structure here, and how has it changed in the last thirty years? How does class shape the culture and the social rules that govern behavior here? How does class affect people’s everyday lives here- their friendships, their work, their family life? How does class shape what is possible for the future of this place?”

FSEM 023 Monkeys, Morality, and the Mind, Greg Frost-Arnold
What am I? What can I know? Are my choices free? Is there any reason to be an ethical person? These are traditionally considered questions for philosophy, yet many recent scientific findings may influence how we answer them. In this seminar, we will consider the impact of contemporary science on philosophy and ask: What, if anything, does evolution have to do with morality? What do psychological findings about humans? Biases show about what (and how) we can know? Is the notion that humans have free will consistent with our current neuroscientific accounts of the brain? If human actions are highly dependent on situational/ contextual factors, as several recent psychological findings have shown, what does this reveal about my identity or personality? Typical Readings: Sommers, A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain; Appiah, Experiments in Ethics; de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved; and selections from Journal of Philosophy, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

FSEM 039 1970s Art & Politics, Melanie Hamilton
In many ways, contemporary events seem to echo the climate of the 70’s. In that decade, too, protest movements and scandal in government dominated the headlines. A society divided by class and education sometimes felt on the brink of schism. Can we really learn lessons can we learn from past events? Is it possible that the origins of the present trouble lie thirty years in the past? Drawing contextual readings by a range of historians, students examine literature, music, visual art, film and popular culture to consider answers to these and other questions. Typical readings include Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics; Frum, How We Got Here: the 70’s, and others. This course focuses intensively on essay writing, and students should expect to spend significant effort on improving their expository skills.

FSEM 040 Fields of Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Cynthia Williams
Quick! Make a hat out of rubber bands, an old sock, and a map of the Northeast! Add on an unfinished sentence and take it in a new direction. Move across the room staying connected to someone else’s earlobe…sing a nonsense song…draw your autobiography…Sound strange? We use improvisation every day when we talk with friends, react without thinking to something new, or walk our own pathway to dinner. Artists use improvisation deliberately, to create new melodies, discover unique movements, or create spontaneity on stage. Scientists use improvisation to test new theories, or to go beyond known limits. Business managers use improvisation to encourage creative thinking, solve problems, or to design products. The ability to improvise is innately human, but many of us find it intimidating. We don’t like to be “on the spot,” we worry about looking foolish, we like to feel in control, and the unscripted possibilities of “anything goes” seem more terrifying than liberating. Fields of Play: Improvisation in Life and Art is a course for students who want to challenge themselves, and to free their minds and bodies from doing the same-old, same-old routines every day. Improvisation is a practice; a discipline that has many forms but one prerequisite: the courage to let go of preconceived plans and trust your words/actions/expressions are absolutely right for the moment. Each class involves improvisational elements which demand total participation as a thinking, moving being.


FSEM 042 Face to Face: Interrogating Race, James McCorkle
Do we live in a post-racial world or a new Jim Crow society? What are the legacies of slavery, segregation, and apartheid? What is meant by white privilege? How do we value human life and what are the ways of developing emancipatory movements? This course examines the parallel structures of segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. The basic premise is that through the lens of another culture we can come to examine our own. The causes and effects of segregation and apartheid on contemporary race relations are the central focus. How race affects gender, class, and social spaces is explored throughout the readings. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 057 Facets of Islam, Etin Anwar
Islam is important. All Muslims are not religious or political extremists, yet the most immediately threatening challenges to Western modernity are emerging from radical Muslim groups. Furthermore, Muslim countries control most of the fuel on which our current lifestyle is based. For these reasons alone, Americans need to understand the Muslim world far better than we presently do. But the defensive victim to “know your enemy” is only the most shallow reason for studying Islam, which is the fastest growing religion in the world today. Why is that? Students explore with critical but open minds the appeal of this religious tradition and way of life. “Facets of Islam” first constructs a basic but coherent narrative of Islam in history. Then students sample the splendors of Islamic civilization in architecture, science, philosophy, gardens, and poetry. Students confront honestly some problematic and troubling issues which divide the Muslim worldview from our own. Finally, students remind themselves of the diversity of the Muslim world today in music, food, fashion, and festival.

FSEM 059 Who Tells Your Story?, Heather May
How are we shaped by the cultures in which we live? The saying is that history is written by the winners, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that history is published and institutionalized by the winners. It is written – in word and voice – by all of us. This course takes the feminist idea that ‘the personal is political’ as a starting point, studying the way that autoethnography provides a theory and practice for melding personal and sociological examinations to generate new understandings of our world. Students will study a range of autoethnographic forms such as poetry, memoir, comics, solo performance, and essay from authors with diverse and intersecting identities such as queer, trans, disabled, Black, Asian American, and Indigenous. This breadth of form, content, and positionality is essential for our consideration of the central question of the course: what is the relationship between personal expression, identity, culture, and power? By the end of the course, students will have tried writing their stories in a variety of autoethnographic forms, with at least one exploration leading to an in-depth study.

FSEM 064 Learning Data Science through Astronomy, Leslie Hebb
Data Science is an emerging field of study in which computational and statistical tools are applied to large data sets in order to extract information and knowledge about the world. This introductory course on data science will use astronomy topics and astronomical data sets to learn about and practice the basic methodology applied to all data science problems. It will teach introductory programming in the language R that will be used to explore, wrangle, and visualize the content of various data sets. Students will learn basic statistics that will allow them to analyze, summarize, model, and draw inferences about these data before presenting the results in written, oral, and graphical form. A final collaborative project will allow students to engage in the full data workflow from data acquisition to the communication of their final results.


FSEM 077 Metacognition and Social Justice: Learning, Thinking, and Knowing, Susan Pliner
This course answers these questions and serves two purposes. One is to introduce students to meta-cognition, reflective practice and self-assessment. Students will explore how the continual assessment of one’s own process, knowledge, and critical questioning guides learning progress and development. Students will examine learning theory including, Bloom’s taxonomy. Kratwohl’s effective domains. Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning. Kolb’s learning cycle, and Perry’s meta-cognition as a means of self-discovery in relationship to identity and foundational theories of social justice. The second purpose is to apply meta-cognitive techniques to exploring and investigating to foundational principles and theories of social justice rooted in civil rights social movements, within which concepts such as social justice, oppression and liberation are central categories for analyzing, evaluating and transforming interlocking systems of discriminatory institutional structures, cultural practices, and social behavior. Issues of power and powerlessness are central to the course as they illuminate how social arrangements are imagined, constructed, and challenged. Students will be introduced to key concepts, methodologies, and competencies connected to the field of social justice studies.

FSEM 078 Sustainable Living & Learning, Kristen Brubaker, Darrin Magee, Robinson Murphy
We are all consumers. We buy things. We use things up. We throw things away. Often we do all of this without considering the life cycle of these “things.” Think about all the t-shirts you own. Do you know what materials make up your t-shirts? Moreover, do you know what was required to get these t-shirts to you in the first place? While these questions may seem to have simple answers, the reality is that each of the “things’ we consume has a complex secret life of its own, one worthy of further consideration. This course will explore the complex relationship between sustainability and consumption, paying specific attention to the myriad ways in which individual consumption practices shape global outcomes. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 079 Haunting Memories: Revealing the Uncanny, Eric Klaus
What do a diabolical alchemist, a mass-murdering spider, and a videotape that predicts your death have in common? They are all central elements of uncanny stories we will encounter in this seminar. The uncanny, as made famous by Sigmond Freud’s article” The Uncanny from 1919, is feeling of fear and dread experienced by the reader or viewer of tales, in which past events return to disrupt seemingly stable and comfortable situations, Our tour of the uncanny will begin at the start of the 19th century and continue through present day and will lead us through several countries, such as Germany, Russia, and the United States. Throughout the semester we will explore how uncanny tales are constructed and how various cultural and historical contexts inform these tales of angst and horror (Eric Klaus) Typical readings: Sigmond Freud: “The Uncanny “(1919); Susan Berstein: “It Walks: The Ambulatory Uncanny”(2003); ETA Hoffman: The Sandman (1817); Edgar Allen Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher (1839); Henrick Ibsen: Ghosts (1881); Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock (1958); The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980) This seminar is part of a Learning Community: all students in this seminar will also be in the same section of Beginning German, along with some other students. List this seminar as a preference only if you also plan to take Beginning German. All the students in this seminar will live in the same residence hall, forming a community that will support its members in this First-Year Seminar, in Beginning German, and in college life in general. Our learning Community will have a Teaching Colleague (an upper-class student) who will help lead the seminar and who will help you make the academic and personal transition to college.

FSEM 081 Seeing Whiteness, Anna Creadick
Is “whiteness” an ethnic identity? How did certain U.S. immigrant populations “become” white? What is “white privilege”? What does the phrase “white trash” imply? As American Studies scholar George Lipsitz notes, whiteness, like all racial identities, is both a “scientific and cultural fiction” and “social fact [with] all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige, and opportunity” In this course, students discover how and why scholars have come to see”whiteness” as a subject. Students delve into the interdisciplinary scholarship that has emerged around the subject of whiteness on the last two decades – from history, literary studies, media and cultural studies, and gender/sexuality studies. Students also study the way whiteness has been represented in novels, plays, and memoirs as well as through film, television, and other visual or material culture texts. Typical readings: Oedigerm Black on White: Black Writers and What it means to Be White; Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color; Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness; Newitz & Wray, White trash: Race and Class in America; Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literacy Imagination; McIntosh, “What Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

FSEM 094 The History of Everything, Grant Holly
Did you know that it was not until 300,000 years after the “big bang” that light occurred, or that in the year 2000, the tenth largest economic entity in the world was Microsoft (Australia was thirteenth, to put things in prospective)? David Christian’s Maps of Time is an example of a recent form of historiography called “big history,” because it attempts to locate human beings from the perspective of much larger contexts than the traditional historical periods. Christian’s book begins nanoseconds after the ‘big bang,” describes the development of the universe, the formation of our planet, the origins and evolution of life, including human life, and continues to trace human history through the origins of agriculture, the development of cities, states, and civilizations, the development of world religions, etc., up to globalization and the modern world, and then it peeks into future. What this course will do is to give us the opportunity to orient and seek to understand ourselves in relation to a variety of contexts from the cosmic to the global to the national and the local, contexts which, as Christian’s book shows us, no matter how vast, or distant, or alien they may seem, create the patterns that play an intimate role in shaping our lives.

FSEM 112 Through the Lens: French and Francophone Cinema, Courtney Wells
This course will be an in-depth study of French film, from its invention by the Frères Lumières in the late 19th century to the present day. Through readings, research, in-class discussions, and group viewings, students will study the history of cinema in the French (and beyond), the fundamentals of the analysis of film, and the vocabulary necessary for discussing film. Films will be shown in French with English subtitles and classroom discussions will be held in English, along with any assignments, exams, presentations, etc. Because a film cannot be divorced from the particular linguistic, cultural, and historical setting in which it is made, this course will also focus on those parts of culture and history that are relevant to the films assigned. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 113 Railroad to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, 1800-1863, Janette Gayle
This course examines the Underground Railroad. A metaphor for a semi-secret interracial set of networks, the “railroad” helped slaves escape from the American South to the North and Canada. In the early 1800s, as the United States as a nation became increasingly divided over the issue of slavery, a secret network of abolitionists emerged. These opponents of slavery helped organize various secret routes and safe houses to smuggle enslaved people out of the South to the North and Canada. Enslaved people and those helping them to escape faced significant legal and geographical obstacles. In addition, enslaved people faced the emotional hardship of having to leave relatives behind in slavery. Despite this, over the decades prior to the Civil War, the network of departure points in the South, as well as safe houses and stations in the North increased as the number of enslaved people using this route to freedom increased. Upstate New York was a hub of the underground railroad. Why? In this class, we will examine why this region was a hub. We will also examine who was involved: who were the abolitionists and where did those fleeing slavery come from? Lastly, we will examine how the underground railroad operated. This course will not only give us a greater understanding of the underground railroad, but also of the struggle for freedom waged by Blacks and their White allies, and the critical role that Upstate New York played in it.

FSEM 117 Who Speaks in STEM, Nan Crystal Arens
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) brands itself with a sort of intellectual objectivity. We observe the world as it is, without bias. However, STEM has a representation problem. Most of its disciplines are still dominated by white, male-identified people. A narrow perspective among scientists limits the kinds of questions we ask and the solutions we can find. This seminar will explore representation in STEM by listening to the voices of under-represented people within the fields and exploring representation by performing an authorship analysis on one of the top journals in paleontology, Prof Arens’ field of expertise. We will reflect on some of the reasons behind ongoing under-representation and present our findings and recommendations in an essay for publication in the journal. We will also explore struggle and resilience through the speculative science fiction of Octavia E. Butler. And conclude the seminar by trying to imagine the world in which we would like to live and do STEM. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 119 Information and Misinformation: Thinking Critically, Stephanie Anglin
When should we trust scientific evidence? When should we not? From Covid-19 to diet to relationships to our environment, we are bombarded with claims about how to behave and live our lives. But just because ‘studies have shown’ does not mean that something is true, and pseudoscientific, exaggerated, and inaccurate claims can be difficult to spot. How do we learn to have ‘healthy skepticism’ about scientific claims and those who make them? This course addresses questions that are essential to evaluating and using scientific information effectively in our daily lives: What is scientific evidence? What constitutes strong vs. weak evidence? How can we make sense of conflicting evidence, including evidence on polarized topics? How do we recognize and counteract bias in scientific research and reasoning? How do people gather evidence to inform their judgments and decisions, and how should they do so? We will tackle these and other questions by considering a range of popular, controversial, and critical topics relevant to 21st century experience using writing-instructive, critical, and reflective approaches to build skills useful for college and for a life as informed consumers of science.

FSEM 120 Running Down a Dream, Ruth Shields
‘Running’ is a leisure activity for an estimated 47 million Americans (according to Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 2017), a competitive sport practiced worldwide in multiple forms, and one of the most ancient sports known to history. This FSEM will explore what running and holding an identity of `runner’ or `not a runner’ means today. How is running positioned today in American society? Other cultures? What does it mean to be a runner, a member of a running community? How does running ‘look’ for different across gender, race, and age lines? Using Jones and McEwens’ conceptual model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity and an interdisciplinary lens, we will explore running as a phenomenon, cultural practice, and physical activity: we will touch on physiological aspects of running; examine the historical context, from running as a mode of transportation and communication to the modern day use of running as recreation and fitness; examine running from cultural and gender-based perspectives; engage in kinesthetic and meta-cognitive learning by examining our own running practice or non-practice; and have opportunities to engage with Geneva running communities as runners, non-runners, and volunteers. Students will also explore their own identities as students, including that of a runner. Please note: this course has an experiential component, but it is accessible to students of all physical abilities.

FSEM 139 Mars!, Nan Crystal Arens
For centuries, Mars has fascinated astronomers, writers, artists, philosophers and geologists. Today, a whole new generation awaits results from the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, which is scheduled to touch down on the red planet in August 2012. More than any other planet, Mars seems familiar, but very different at the same time. We will use Earth as a model to explore these similarities and difference. In particular we will compare and contrast the planets’ internal structures, tectonics, rock cycle, hydrological cycle, sedimentary processes, glacial processes, atmospheric evolution, history and potential for life-past and present. We will explore these topics through reading and writing in the primary scientific literatures, hands-on projects that will use data coming directly from Curiosity, individual research, and presentations. This is an exciting time for Mars exploration. It is possible that in the next few months we may have an answer to the question: Was there ever life on Mars? You can be part of that discovery. This course is part of a Living/Learning Community.

FSEM 140 How I almost Got Away with it: Law and Order in Ancient Athens, James Capreedy
What did the law protect? How did the Athenians administer justice? How did the courts operate and what were the penalties? In this course we will read court speeches from ancient Athens and examine the ways in which rhetoric and law converged, and justice was administered. We will study how the Athenians defined, developed, and exercised law within their own cultural beliefs and how the Athenian legal system compares to modern western law including its differences, similarities and uniting principles. Law as an idea, then, is as central to this course as the practices and procedures of the ancient Athenian court system.

FSEM 141 The Lens of Stand-up Comedy, Jamie MaKinster
It is one person in front of an audience with the goal of making others laugh. Yet stand-up comedy is so much more. Comedians force and challenge us to look at our lives, our communities, and society in ways that we may not yet have considered. Issues that relate to the dimensions of social class, racism, sexual orientation, gender identity, cultural reproduction, and the very nature of human existence are explored both implicitly and explicitly. This course will examine the role of stand-up comedy in the human experience, the ways in which different comedians present and leverage their own lives, and what we might learn through the attempts of others to make people laugh. Text and videos will serve as context for active exploration of a wide variety of issues and topics.

FSEM 144 Parched: Past, Present, and Future of Water, Tara Curtin
is a necessity of life. It is nature’s ultimate paradox: the softest natural ‘element’ in both classical and eastern thought and yet one capable of overcoming all the others. Water is an agent of purification, healing, nourishment, and mechanical power. It is also an agent of destruction and devastation. Water is the most plentiful natural resource on Earth and yet a resource that increasingly proves unobtainable when humans seek and need it most. In the midst of global climate change, environmental crises for water resources and the political debates over water, we have come to the realization of our complete dependence on water. Students will examine and draw conclusions about the nature of humankind’s encounter with water using maps, biographies, autobiographies, poems, movies, novels, and scholarly articles. Through lectures, class discussion, debates, short essays, blogging, and research papers, this course will provide students with the tools to explore how the environment naturally produces safe, clean drinking water; how humans obtain and use these water resources; water quality and water pollution; water treatment processes; energy generation; and how we can sustain our water resources in perpetuity.

FSEM 164 Encountering Difference, Shalahudin Kafrawi
Encounters happen every day. We encounter people of different civilizations, nations, races, religions, classes, sexes, and genders at schools, workplaces, supermarkets, public squares, and other venues. What do we expect when we meet other people? How do we respond when we encounter difference? What constitutes difference? Why do we fear difference? Why do people stereotype? Could the fear of the other necessitate one to control the narrative, the people, or their resources? Or, could encounter with the other become a life-changing experience? What needs to be done for us to have a meaningful encounter with the other? After discussing the philosophical foundation for encountering different realms of reality through reading a passage on the allegory of the cave in Plato’s republic, this course will explore on three fields in which we encounter difference. The three cases encountering difference will include: Christian Spaniards’ encounters with Native Americans, racial-ethnic encounters among Americans, and interfaith encounters in the post-911 world.


You’ll notice that some of our Seminars are also part of a Learning Community, a distinctive living and learning environment that enhances the connections between courses and extracurricular events.

Learn more about Learning Communities.