First Year Seminars

Students in a classroom with a professor lecturing

The First Year Seminars (FYS) are the signature element of Occidental's Core Program.

FYS Requirement

Students take two First Year Seminar (FYS) courses: one in each semester of their first year (one in fall and another in the spring). Note: Transfer students are exempted from the FYS requirement.

Mission of the First Year Seminars

The mission of the FYS program is to prepare all first-year students for success at Occidental College. In FYS courses, students engage in shared intellectual experiences that develop effective college-level writing and enhance critical thinking. FYS courses will also assist students with the transition to college and include an introduction to scholarly inquiry.

FYS courses are graded on an S/U basis. This is intended to encourage students to focus on gaining knowledge and skills required to meet college-level critical thinking and writing expectations. The grade mode emphasizes the growth represented by students’ work throughout the course. Grades of S/U do not factor into a student’s term or overall GPA.

Learning Objectives of First Year Seminars

The learning objectives of FYS courses can be found here:

Fall 2021 First Year Seminars

FYS 1 Digital Worldmaking (Two sections)

Section 1: Prof. Teddy Pozo

Section 2: Prof. Sheldon Schiffer

For the programmers who built the first video games, controlling computers meant controlling miniature worlds, having the power to shape both fantasy and reality. Yet if computers are tools of transformation, how have they been used so far? We are sold the fantasy of technology companies as progressive and utopian disrupters of a repressive status quo, while these companies’ products often deepen and reinforce oppressive systems of rules such as racism, sexism, binary cis gender, colonialism, and capitalism. If you had the chance to make your own world using technology, what would you do differently? In the hands of a new generation of programmers, could the process of designing virtual worlds with their own systems of rules help reimagine technology, building what Ruha Benjamin calls an “emancipatory approach”? Through this class, students will use science fiction, video games, movies, and works of history and theory as inspiration to artistically and technologically transform real-world practices such as game design, AI ethics, virtual reality, disability and accessibility, and environmental science. Students will also leave prepared to build strong thesis-driven written arguments and exercise their critical thinking skills throughout their time at Occidental College. 

Note: FYS 1: Digital Worldmaking can either be taken by itself or as part of the Computing IRL Immersive program.

FYS 3 National Odysseys: Travel as Transformation in American Narrative

Prof. Raul Villa 

This course deals with the significance of travel as a persistent motif in United States literature and popular film. It is not a survey of “travel literature” in any promotional or touristic sense.  Instead, we will consider what sorts of individual or social circumstances compel people to move through the landscapes of the nation. What are they fleeing from or searching for? How are they transformed, for better or worse, in their journeys? 

To answer these questions, we will reflect on themes of exploration and escape, discovery and displacement. The course texts will relate such experiences as the traumatic dislocations of slave transit, the ecstatic wanderings of beat writers, the forced exodus of Dust Bowl refugees, the quest for personal redemption or renewal, and the inexorable circuity of migrant labor.

This is a humanities course in content, topic and method. You will be asked to read books and watch films with care and critical focus. Your understanding of these texts will be exercised in regular seminar discussion and in a series of informal and formal interpretive essays. Some evening film screenings may be required.

FYS 4 Diversity in France (Two sections)

Prof. Hanan Elsayed

In 2011, the French Minister of the Interior affirmed the importance of diversity to France, but also stated that diversity in France should not lead to the adoption of multiculturalism. This course will help students acquire a better understanding of diversity in France by examining the challenges faced by minorities and disenfranchised youth as well as the rise of the extreme right. Discussions will focus on the ways cinematic, theoretical and fictional works represent race, minorities, and the disadvantaged suburbs. The course will provide students with intellectual and interpretative tools to think critically about citizenship, fictive ethnicity, Frenchness, and colonial legacy.

FYS 5 Religion and Violence

Prof. Michael Amorouso

This course interrogates the relationship between religion and violence. Through a survey of the scholarship on religion and violence and a series of focused studies on topics like the "revolutionary suicide" at Jonestown, the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico, and 9/11, this course will offer a broad overview of religion and violence in the Americas. Using these case studies, we will ask a series of analytical questions: Can religion motivate violence, or do they merely sanctify it? What are the sources of religious authority (such as leaders, scripture, tradition, and ritual practice) that can militate for or against violence? And what kinds of speech and action are properly understood as violent?

FYS 6 Chaos

Prof. Janet Scheel

Just how predictable is our universe? In this seminar, we will learn how the mathematics of chaos helps us to better understand science, economics, psychology, and our environment. Students will also learn about the butterfly effect, period doubling, fractal dimensions, and strange attractors.

FYS 7 Authoritarianism and Globalization

Prof. Igor Logvinenko

Three decades after Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the "End of History," global capitalism is in crisis, political authoritarianism remains viable, and democracy is increasingly under threat around the world. Publics in established democracies are rejecting globalization and supporting authoritarian populism, while many dictators have embraced the hyper-mobility of capital, free trade, and modern information technology. These developments raise a number of questions, which we will explore in the course. What is the relationship between globalization and authoritarianism? How do authoritarian regimes navigate today’s highly globalized world economy? How should we understand the rise of populist movements in the rich world? The major goal of the seminar is to encourage first-year students to develop writing and research skills while reflecting on these important questions in the context of the latest research in the social sciences. 

FYS 8 Literature and Philosophy: The Dionysian in Modern Thought 

Section 1: Prof. Damian Stocking

Section 2: Prof. Sidney Mitsunaga-Whitten

More than simply a "god of wine," Dionysus was for the Ancient Greeks a god of ecstatic self-abandon, of gushing fertility, of violent dismemberment and unexpected rebirth. In myth he was attended by raving Maenads and mischievous Satyrs; amongst humans he was worshipped with festive dances, communal shouts, ritual obscenities, and (perhaps most importantly) with poetry -- with the literary genres of ode, comedy and tragedy that were invented specifically to honor him. What could be farther, we might ask, from the cool, reasonable practice of philosophy than this wild, uncanny, irrational god? And yet, as we shall see in this class, this reckless god of madness and poetry stands at the foundation of some of the most important ideas in modern philosophy -- Hegel's phenomenology of spirit, Nietzsche's will to power, Heidegger's philosophy of Existenz, Bataille's notion of excess, and Derrida's "non-concept" of differance. Beginning with an exploration of Dionysian poetics in Ancient Greece, this course will attempt to show what thinkers like these found so inspiring in this ancient god, and what the writers and thinkers of our own time might yet find in him still.

FYS 9 Women and Arts of East Asia (Two sections) 

Prof. Yurika Wakamatsu 

This seminar explores the many ways in which women in East Asia have engaged with art—as producers, as patrons, and as objects or subjects of the gaze. At the same time, we will study how gender and womanhood have been conceived and contested in China, Japan, and Korea. We will investigate topics such as the construction of desire; the politics of the gaze; shifting ideals of femininity; and representations of gender in anime. Readings and discussions will be supplemented with hands-on activities, including ink painting, pottery making, and the tea ceremony. Ultimately, we will develop critical tools for examining how women have been represented in East Asian visual culture and how they have exerted their own forms of artistic agency.

FYS 10 Black Movements

Prof. Regina Freer

Historically, Blackness has been bounded within degraded space, uprooted, and threatened with erasure. Yet, Black people resist, persist, and make places for themselves. Grounded in the study of Black Geography, this course will examine the relationship between race and space, exploring when, why, and how Black people are spatially marginalized, how they move and are moved through space and time, and how they create a sense of place. We will explore topics such as the transatlantic slave trade, marronage, gentrification, migration, environmental racism, and social movements like the Movement for Black Lives. Our texts will include articles, films, maps, monographs, music, and novels.

FYS 11 Asian Pacific Americans and Education (Two Sections)

Prof. Charlyne Sarmiento

This seminar will explore critical theories of education, particularly within critical race studies and a focus on Asian Pacific Americans students in the U.S. Students will reflect on their own identity formation within the context of their learning, conduct close-readings of educational narratives, and engage with the scholarship in critical race studies and education. Some questions our class will explore through reading and writing informal writing assignments and argumentative-driven essays include: What factors contribute to historically marginalized Asian Pacific American students' educational achievement? How can critical race theory be used as a lense to assess inequities in education? How can critical pedagogy be used as a lense to rethink traditional models of education?

FYS 12 The Rose Garden: History and Culture of Iran

Prof. Candace Mixon

This course explores the vibrant religious and social currents shaping Iran from the 16th century onwards. It takes students beyond the Iranian Revolution, to Iran’s rich philosophical heritage, its spectacular art and architecture, its cinematic traditions, its mystical and messianic movements, its cultures of protest, and its intellectual and religious diversity. We will also examine aspects of Persian culture present in Los Angeles.

FYS 13 Because Each Believes Himself Inspired: Individualism and the Birth of American Literature (Two sections)

Prof. Devin Fromm

In “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson urged the spirit of a young nation to pour its novelty into its cultural production, so as “to look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” In the half century following this invocation, American literature more than fulfilled the charge, establishing itself as a unique and prosperous field through meditations on Emerson’s notion of individuality. This course will look at this first great explosion of American letters as it unfolds in the context of Emerson’s call to arms, from the Romantic movement that Emerson founded, through realism and regionalism, to the birth of modernism. Beginning with the foundation of individualism, it will consider other crucial downstream themes, such as the education of women, the problem of slavery, and the growing modernization of the nation, in the context of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, Kate Chopin and Emily Dickinson.

FYS 15 Knowledge and Nature in the African Diaspora (Two sections)

Prof. Christopher Blakley

To what extent did Atlantic African environmental, medical, and scientific knowledge shape the physical landscapes and intellectual worlds of the Americas between the period of early colonialism until the Age of Revolution? This course follows the mobile lives of people including West Central African banganga in Mexico, Temne-speaking women in South Carolina, and Kimbundu-speaking physicians in Brazil whose technical skill and knowledge proved invaluable for the empires and nations they found themselves within after surviving the middle passage. Millions of people speaking diverse languages and hailing from cultures from the Senegal River to Angola quite literally laid the environmental, economic, and intellectual foundations of American nations including the United States. As a community our goal will be to understand the role of the African diaspora in transforming the environments of the Western Hemisphere, and the ideas and knowledge that Africans in the diaspora developed through enslavement, fugitivity, and emancipation. Our course will ask how rice and sugar plantations, and other industrial spaces, are the products of Atlantic African technology forged through diaspora between Africa, South America and North America. Human trafficking involving captives provided the groundwork of scientific sensibilities as West Central Africans developed empirical sciences in Latin America and the Caribbean. Finally, we will take a look at the rich medical traditions of diverse peoples ranging from herbalists in Brazil to people of multiethnic ancestry like Afro-Yucatecan healers. This is an interdisciplinary seminar that will combine methods and readings from history, anthropology, ethnobotany, and environmental studies. Writing assignments throughout the course will enable participants to develop skill in expository writing, research with primary and secondary sources, and methods for historical analysis.

FYS 16 All that Glitters: Life and Literature in Los Angeles (Two sections)

Prof. Jackie Elam

Norman Mailer described Los Angeles as a “constellation of plastic.” John Fante called it a “sad flower in the sand.” Is Los Angeles really just “72 suburbs in search of a city,” as Dorothy Parker claimed, or is there something else brewing beneath the beautiful, sunny skies? We’ll explore (through art, films, and books) 20th and 21st century Los Angeles as both a real and imagined location. Through the completion of four short papers (including one with a research component), you’ll craft your own conceptual “map” of the place. Required texts will likely include Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (David Ulin), Their Dogs Came with Them (Helena Maria Viramontes), and an assortment of short readings (both fiction and non-fiction/historical). Health and safety permitting, there might also be an optional field trip or two. Please note that some of the texts for this course may be disturbing. Please contact the instructor if you have any questions.

FYS 19 Piracy, Enslavement, and the Making of the Atlantic World

Prof. Lauren Brown

This course considers the role that piracy and the transatlantic slave trade played in the foundations of Atlantic empires. Discussions will focus on interactions between pirates (male and female), sailors, captives, privateers, corsairs, chartered companies, and European colonizers. Through historical accounts, fiction, and film we will examine life on the high seas, the local and global in the movement of people, goods and ideas, and the regulatory role of the state. We will be attentive to the position of pirates as an emerging social group, as well as addressing themes such as capitalism, citizenship, masculinity, revolt, the Middle Passage, and profit vs. morality. In addition, we will analyze representations of captives and pirates in popular culture.

FYS 20 The Figure a Poem Makes

Prof. Ara Corbett

In this course students will study the relationship between poetry and rhetoric -- more specifically, how meter, rhyme, and stanzaic arrangement have historically worked together to create meaning and construct different types of argument. We will read poems, commentaries, analyses, and other critical material to explore the role of form in shaping and enriching consciousness. This course will also provide intensive training in academic writing at the college level, with assignments designed to build critical reading and writing skills over the course of the semester.

FYS 21 Applying the Sociological Imagination to Social Problems in the United States

Prof. Min Yoo

In this course, students will apply the sociological imagination to films and major social problems in the United States. The sociological imagination refers to the ability to relate personal troubles to public issues -- that is, the ability to understand the social world and how it has profound effect in our personal lives through a sociological lens. Students will be able to critically examine and investigate issues related to race/class/gender/sexual orientation/power/conflict. Major topics include construction of social problems/deviance, police brutality, mass incarceration, mass shootings, child abuse, homelessness, COVID-19. Students will be able to enhance their writing and presentation skills by developing clear arguments (i.e., their position) on various topics. Students will also engage with current events, podcasts, and peer-reviewed journals that discuss contemporary social problems.

FYS 22 Philosophy and Film: Between Moscow and Berlin

Prof. Julia Sushytska

Eastern Europe was constructed during the Enlightenment to bring into relief the “superior” Western European culture. Since then Eastern Europe has been considered an obscure, ambiguous, and paradoxical place. Yet, it offers an epistemological advantage to those who decide to linger in its strange and fascinating lands. We will read and watch several key philosophical and cinematic works from Ukraine, Slovenia, Russia, and other nearby countries to elucidate the privileged vantage point of Eastern Europe. The philosophers and film directors could include Tarkovsky, Bakhtin, Florensky, Paradjanov, Vertov, Žižek, Mamardashvili, and others. If circumstances allow, students will have the opportunity to visit several cultural venues in Los Angeles, including the Wende Museum of the Cold War, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

FYS 23 Self-Sacrifice in the History of Philosophy

Prof. Milo Crimi

Sometime in the year 399 BCE, the Athenian philosopher Socrates, convicted of impiety and corrupting the youth, fulfilled his death sentence by calmly draining a cup of poison hemlock, lifted to his mouth by his own hand. On June 1, 1310 CE, the French philosopher Marguerite Porete, deemed a heretic by a council of theologians, stood, according to one onlooker, "noble and devout" in the Place de Grève in Paris, moments before enduring the horror of being burned alive. Both refused numerous opportunities to avoid their fate. Socrates's rich friends repeatedly offered to buy his way out of trouble. Porete was afforded multiple opportunities to disown her writings and recant her views. Knowing full well the dangers they faced, both chose instead to sacrifice themselves for their convictions. Underlying their practice, the philosophical teachings of Socrates and Porete express theoretical viewpoints on the themes involved in their own fatal acts—the nature of the soul, justice, wisdom, nobility, and devotion—as well as on the very idea of self-sacrifice. In this seminar, we'll consider these two episodes, and how they relate, from both historical/practical and philosophical/theoretical vantage points. In the first part, we'll read the "first tetralogy" of Plato's dialogues—Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo—which recounts Socrates's final days and also serves as one of the finest introductions to philosophical inquiry available. In the second part, we'll read Porete's condemned Mirror of Simple Souls, a dazzlingly surreal work of apophatic mysticism that reports a conversation between personifications of Love, Reason, Soul, and other interlocutors. Throughout, we'll supplement this primary reading with selections from other thinkers in related contexts, as well as secondary literature from modern philosophers and historians.

FYS 25 CANCELLED People Make “Reality”: An Introduction to Social Constructionism

Prof. Isaac Speer

This course will introduce students to social constructionism, the perspective that our shared social reality is constructed. We will start with the general perspective, then examine how this perspective applies to particular topics like gender, race, sexual orientation, time, and space. Students will write several essays in which they explain this perspective. In the process, students will consider how social constructionism challenges our “common sense” understandings of the world, and the implications it has for our understanding of social issues.

FYS 26 Play Ball!: The Social Significance of America’s National Pastime

Prof. Brady Potts

Sport is a central feature of American life, and relatively few institutions in the United States have been as enduring as that of baseball. From its pastoral origins in the 19 th Century U.S. to its current global status, baseball as an institution offers an opportunity to critically examine the ways in which “America’s pastime” has been shaped by the society around it, as well as how baseball has itself shaped the communities and nations in which it is played. The course will touch on immigration, labor issues, race, gender, collective identity, municipal politics, and will use baseball as a lens to understand broader social processes of modernization, rationalization, and globalization. Far from the commonsense assumption that baseball is “just a game”, this course will teach students to think critically about the relationship between sport and society.

FYS 27 Contesting Native American Sovereignty

Prof. Justin de Leon

This course will explore various historical struggles of Native peoples in North America in their quest for sovereignty and agency. Sovereignty, in legal terms, has defined the boundaries of possibility for Native peoples, acting as both an opportunity to secure and protect rights, while also as an imposed structure allowing for continued marginalization. Students will interrogate structures of oppression, exploring the “nested”-nature of settler colonial configurations of nationhood and sovereignty. There will be a strong emphasis on writing and critical analysis throughout the course.

FYS 28 Disability Narratives: Drugs, Care, and Cure (Two sections)

Prof. Alexandra Fine

Narratives of dis/ability tell stories of health, illness, impairment, addiction, affliction, and survival. Using theories and histories from disability studies, we will explore how cultures of care and cure in the U.S. advance ability or able-bodiedness as a norm. In this course, we will consider histories of medical discrimination, health activisms and disability justice, and care interventions offered by harm reduction and mutual aid approaches. To think more deeply about drugs, care, and cure, we will examine legislation, media representations, the War on Drugs, the medical-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industry, and modes of activist resistance pertaining to disability, addiction, and illness in the U.S.

FYS 29 Art and the Sea

Prof. Sam Luterbacher

The sea increasingly linked coastal cultures across the early modern world as European colonial, mercantile, and missionary projects rapidly gathered steam. Activities like commercial trade and religious conversion gave rise to art forms that redefined notions of “people” and “place.” How do these shores, coastlines, horizons, and vast open waters challenge traditional histories of the border-bound mainland? This course will examine the early modern artworks that arose from contact and conflict among maritime communities. It will explore the waterborne incursions of seafaring imperial powers like Venice, Portugal, Spain, England, and the Netherlands into Asia, Africa and the Americas. Our own location in coastal California also invites particular attention to Pacific art histories (both indigenous and colonial). Materials include maps and marine art, prints, portable objects, and the vast material culture of port cities arising from artistic exchange and innovation. The sea’s promise of economic fortune and new discovery occurred in conjunction with violent colonial conquest, displacement, and enslavement. Readings and artworks will engage those narratives along with the themes of portability, trade, exile and migration, and concepts of “local” versus “global” culture.

FYS 30 The Optimized Life: Deep Principles for Human Learning

Prof. Stephanie Nelli

Even though we do it everyday, recognizing a face isn’t as easy as it seems. Different hairstyles or a sideways angle fooled our best algorithms for decades. But now, sufficiently large neural networks learn to recognize faces at timescales that starkly contrast the millennia evolution took in sculpting our brains.  Indeed, deep learning has demonstrated that many sophisticated behaviors and neural codes actually emerge naturally from a limited set of principles.  Students in this course will uncover these principles through reading literature and example code, and draw on them to generate hypotheses about optimizing learning in humans. No experience is required to succeed in this course but a strong interest in cognitive science, computer science, mathematics and/or statistics will be beneficial.

FYS 31 Spinning Science: How Storytelling Drives the Perception and Progress of Science

Prof. Natalie Muren

In this course students will develop a sophisticated understanding of the nature and process of scientific inquiry and communication, tracing the development of scientific information from original measurements to online broadcasts. Students will hone the skills necessary to evaluate and utilize scientific information reported in both peer-reviewed journals and popular media sources. Practice in reading primary scientific articles for comprehension, writing clearly about scientific topics for a broad audience, and delivering engaging scientific presentations will be a major focus of this course. Overall, students will gain perspective on how scientific knowledge is established and communicated to inform the actions we take as a society and in our personal lives.