The First-Year Seminars are the signature element of Occidental's Core Program.
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.
FYS Mission and Learning Objectives
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.
The learning objectives of FYS courses can be found here: /academics/core-program/learning-objectives
Fall 2022 First-Year Seminars
Each year we offer a small number of First-Year Seminars that are connected with other courses to allow students to explore a topic in more depth. While standard FYS courses earn 4 units, these special programs involve taking either 8 or 16 units of connected courses. (Students typically enroll in 16-18 units per semester.) For more information about each program, see the web pages linked below.
FYS 1 (Im)migrant Communities of California
Prof. Mary Christianakis, Prof. Viviana MacManus, and Prof. Richard Mora
Web page: California Immigration Semester.
This course offers students the opportunity to analyze the sociohistoric, legal, and cultural tensions surrounding various (im)migrant communities in California. Students will explore the various waves of (im)migration across time to understand the diverse communities of California. Students will also build critical and interpretive capacities through the examination of state policies, statistics, and various historical and empirical studies. Additionally, through the construction and revision of several expository, research-based writings on immigration, students will hone their writing, argumentation, and presentation skills. Open only to first-year students.
This course is part of the 16-unit California Immigration Semester. Students must also be enrolled in CTSJ 105, SOC 105, and SPAN 105. For more information about this program and how to enroll, please see the web page linked.
FYS 2 Envisioning and Enacting Health Justice
Prof. Clair Morrissey & Kristi Upson-Saia
Web page: Humanities for Just Communities Immersive Semester.
We all want to build a socially just community and we believe that our health, as well as that of our family, friends, and neighbors, is a vital component of such a community. At the same time, we also recognize that what justice requires is complex and contested. This interdisciplinary course will help students conceptualize what justice looks like within the realm of health and medicine, and it will also give students the opportunity to begin enacting their vision. Through a series of case studies on public health, the patient-provider relationship, reproductive health, and end-of-life care, we will call upon the tools of history and philosophy to scrutinize the foundational conceptual framing and assumptions of contemporary practices, policies, and institutions and then to envision a better way forward. At the end of semester, students will design their own social justice project on a topic of their choice. Open only to first-year students.
This FYS is part of the Humanities for Just Communities Immersive semester. Students must also be enrolled in PHIL 239/RELS 239. For more information about this program and how to enroll, please see the web page linked. Students enrolled in this immersive will get credit for the fall first year seminar requirement, and also will meet the Core Program’s requirements for Global Connections (CPGC) and Pre-1800 (CPPE).
Standard FYS Courses
FYS 3 Bohemias
Prof. Heather Lukes
What is Bohemia? Variously construed as a space, a style, a phase, and a form of subculture, the concept of Bohemianism captures images of rebellion, artistic production, urbanity, youth, altered states, and sexual experimentation. This course tracks the history of Bohemia and bohemians from their origins in nineteenth-century Paris, London, and Berlin to the twentieth-century United States. Tracking a cast of characters including hipsters, hippies, outcasts, queers, punks, pachuchas, starving artists, and beatniks, we will analyze historical writings, literature, music, and film while asking if the twenty-first century still has the time and place for bohemia. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 4 The Examined Life
Prof. Jonathan Veitch
Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Even with his example in front of us it is not entirely clear what it would mean to live an examined life. What, for example, is the relationship between an examined life, a good life, and happiness? Do they amount to the same thing? Or are they different? In this course we will read the autobiographies of beatniks, monks, artists, obsessives, entrepreneurs, suburbanites, celebrities and charlatans in an effort to come to terms with what it means to live thoughtfully and with purpose. In the process we will explore the nature of autonomy, pleasure, freedom, vocation and happiness—all in an effort to launch you on your own pursuit of these very questions. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 5 Reframing the I/Eye: The Politics of Autobiographical Media
Prof. Broderick Fox
The rise of identity-based social movements in the late 20th century coincided with the emergence of consumer video technologies, sparking a profusion of autobiographical media works by female-identifying, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC individuals who were not simply demanding representation in media, but that such representations be complex, intersectional, and self-produced. These autobiographical video works served as powerful corrections, both to the essentializing, extractive, colonialist legacies of documentary production, and to the traditions of autobiography—until then a largely literary tradition cultivated by white men expounding on their lives of privilege. And yet in that pre-digital, pre-internet moment the propensities to edit material and access channels of distribution were still profoundly limited. In our own 21st century moment where hi-definition video can increasingly be recorded, edited, and distributed via our phones and social media accounts, how have the politics and poetics of self-representation changed? Can autobiography still function as a political act, or has it become a digital commonplace, lost in the noise of selfie-culture and personal branding? Through readings, screenings, critical writing, and a final digital project option, this seminar will challenge students to reimagine the potentials of autobiography today. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 6 From Birth to Death: A Philosophical Life
Prof. Erica Preston-Roedder and Prof. Ryan Preston-Roedder
This seminar offers a philosophical look at birth, childhood, middle age, old age, and death. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 7 Literature and Philosophy: The Dionysian in Modern Thought
Prof. Damian Stocking and 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 worshiped 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. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 8 From Low Culture to High Art: The Evolution of American Comics
Prof. Raul Villa
Comic books were once viewed as the lowest form of mass culture, and even considered an intellectual and moral threat to young people. Today, "graphic literature" is a celebrated medium supported by a mainstream apparatus of publication and criticism. We will study the history of this hybrid medium, from its origins as disposable children's fare to its current array of serious adult genres (novels and short stories, memoir, documentary journalism, and biography). The emphasis will be on American comix, but some attention may be given to international works in translation. This course may be particularly attractive to students interested in the creative arts and humanities, but the variety of course texts and contents should appeal to students with broad topical interests in 20th century history and culture. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 9 Race and the Environment
Prof. Michael Murphy
For several decades, scholars and activists have documented, analyzed, and organized against the myriad ways that race shapes the quality of environments in which human life unfolds. Their work has consistently revealed that environmental burdens, such as air pollution, toxic contamination, and urban heat island effects (to name a few), are distributed unequally across the color line, and that both nonwhite and low-income populations are most vulnerable when it comes to dealing with "natural" disasters and their aftermath. People of color also often lack adequate access to environmental amenities and necessities like tree canopy cover and green space, in addition to having inadequate access to healthy and affordable foods. This scholarship points to different facets of we might call racialized socioecological relations, or those relations and dynamics between humans, nonhumans, and ecosystems, that are mediated by racial hierarchy and difference. In this course, we will study racialized socioecological relations at various scales, from the neighborhood to the globe, with the underlying aim of rethinking “race,” “the environment,” and their complex relationship. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 10 All that Glitters: Life and Literature in Los Angeles
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. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 11 Histories of Incarcerated Youth
Prof. Christine Grant
Can young lawbreakers be rehabilitated, or should they be removed from society to prevent them endangering others? Since the 1820s, reformers, philanthropists, and state officials in the Western world have wrestled with the question of how to reduce juvenile crime and turn delinquents into good citizens. The institutions and policies they created reflected their conceptions of young criminals, their backgrounds and families, their gender and their race. How did experts develop a body of knowledge about at-risk youth, what practices did they put into place, and what spaces did they build to house and contain the children? How have the children themselves responded, developing a sense of their own identity through compliance with or resistance to reformers’ intent?
Reformers and policymakers adapted their solutions to national and local contexts, but they also participated in an international network of experts from North America and Europe that debated ideas and offered new models for responding to juvenile delinquency. We will explore ideas, practices, and institutions created to save juvenile delinquents, presented in reports and studies as well as fiction and film. Students will encounter a variety of primary and secondary sources from North America and Europe from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 12 Climate Change: Then and Now
Prof. Christopher Blakley
Climate change in the past pushed societies and empires to expand, contract, and clash with their neighbors. The Roman Empire flourished during its Climatic Optimum, a period of warm, stable weather patterns that supported agriculture and the annexation of Egypt. Yet, later periods of climate change pushed nomadic states to invade Rome’s borders, and a Late Antique Little Ice Age further stressed the empire. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Maya flourished under positive climatic conditions and then slowly retreated due to anthropogenic drought. Into the medieval and early modern periods, the
effects of the Little Ice Age between 1300 and 1850 can be seen in the near-constant string of wars, slavery, and famine that shaped North America. Can looking at episodes of climate change in the past inform how we think about climate change and the Anthropocene–our present period of human-caused climate change–now? This is an interdisciplinary seminar that will combine methods and readings from historical climatology, paleoclimatology, anthropology, and environmental science. 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. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 13 Myth, Magic, Mystery: Writing Enchantment in the Modern World
Prof. Devin Fromm
Critical discussion of modern life often centers around the idea of its being disenchanted, with the view that the growing rationalization of enlightenment has replaced the magic and mystery that once appeared to underwrite the world. This semester we will seek to understand this concept of disenchantment, from the way it structures our view of the world, to the way different schools of thought have answered it. To do so, we will read some of the seminal writings on the theory, as well as look at the spectrum of literary responses it has generated, with particular attention to the various efforts to infuse or rediscover in the world the sort of awe, surprise, and wonder that such a rational approach would appear to blot out. Our reading will move through diverse genres, such as romanticism, gothic, mystery, mythology, and science fiction, in the work of authors from William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley to Jorge Luis Borges and Derek Walcott.
FYS 14 Rhythm and Rhetoric: New Formal Poetry
Prof. Ara Corbett
In this course students will study the various ways formal poetry is unique in its ability to heighten awareness and shape understanding. Focusing on newly published criticism and poems (including new translations of work by North Korean poet Kim Ok and Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva), we will explore how the cadence of everyday speech and the formal rules of meter, rhyme, and stanza work together to generate a wide range of expressive and rhetorical possibilities. Along the way, students will be given intensive training in academic writing at the college level, with assignments designed to build critical reading and writing skills—including the use of evidence, rhetorical strategies, and matters of form, clarity, and style—over the course of the semester. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 15 Isn't It Romantic? Lovers, Knights, Sorcerers and Superheroes Through the Ages
Prof. Q. Sarah Ostendorf
While the term "romance novel" today often calls to mind tawdry love stories featuring heaving bosoms and uncontrollable passions, the genre of romance is much more complex than these stereotypes would make it seem. Early examples of romance are sprawling adventure narratives of chivalry, crusades, the supernatural, and yes, occasionally even love. Today, these tales' descendants include not only the love stories we associate with the genre of romance, but also fantasy novels, Westerns, superhero narratives, and more. In this course we will explore the genealogy of romance from the Middle Ages through modern day, asking not only what constitutes a romance, but also what the continuously popular genre can teach us about readers' desires and discontents across history. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 16 Rhetorical Agency and Cultural Production from the Asian Diaspora
Section 1: Prof. Charlyne Sarmiento
Asian immigration in the U.S. holds a specific history in relation to other migrant or racialized groups. Stock narratives of Asian identity are often constructed under the model minority myth and U.S. exceptionalism, relegating Asians as forever foreigners in the U.S. imaginary. In response to these constricting narratives that have escalated anti-Asian violence and hate speech during the Covid-19 pandemic, students will explore the cultural production of texts from the Asian diaspora that have responded to such rhetoric. We will analyze writing as a practice that is socially constructed by people across time and space and within specific cultural contexts, a theoretical lens situated in the field of Composition and Rhetoric and Writing Studies. This lens focuses on what texts do, placing the authors of such text as having agency and driven by the social relationship within their community. To do this, students will learn methods to analyze not only print texts, but also texts that are multimodal. For example, students will read and analyze short stories, essays, film, counterstories and texts written from the Asian diaspora in response to social injustices. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 17 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. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 18 Islamophobia
Prof. Candace Mixon
This class explores the Islamophobic ramifications of racialized Islam and Muslim identities. We will consider "blackness," "brownness," and "whiteness" as experienced through Muslim life, as well as how minoritized race and religion combine in ways that lead to fear, opposition, and violence. We will study Islamophobia through a number of American and global cases, the racial and religious coding of various groups (such as Sikhs or Iranians in North America), perceptions of different sects of Islam (including the Nation of Islam or the Ahmadiyya), and the political ramifications of these identities (such as recent US elections and census taking). In addition to traditional readings, course materials will include a variety of media, such as long-form journalism, memoirs, ethnography, music, and film. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 19 Philosophy and Film: Between Moscow and Berlin
Prof. Julia Sushytska
We will discuss a perspective on Eastern Europe known as “demi-Orientalism,” and consider the effects of imperialism on Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish, Lithuanian, Romani, and other inhabitants of Eastern Europe. What paths of escape have been devised by the multiplicitous and heterogeneous peoples of Eastern Europe? What ways to resist not one, but two colonial powers have they found? We will consider these questions in light of three fascinating topics: the pagan beliefs of Eastern Slavs, the creative, but also destructive power of words, and the transformative role of laughter. We will discuss the texts of Arendt, Bakhtin, Chaadaev, Gogol, Mamardashvili, Snyder, and other philosophers, historians, and writers, and watch the films of Eisenstein, Paradjanov, and Kusturica to determine what new ways of being can be found in the ambiguous lands of Eastern Europe. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 20 German Film: Modernity and its Monsters
Prof. Alex Gardner
This course offers a survey of German film from the origins of cinema to the present day. We will focus on questions pertaining to how one can interpret or “read” a film, as well as the relation of German film to contemporaneous developments in art, literature and politics. How is the authoritarianism of the early 20th century depicted and/or confronted in film? What do horror films tell us about the anxieties and prejudices of the societies that produced and consumed them? Throughout the course, we will investigate the ways in which the dilemmas and aspirations of the modern world became legible in film, and continually ask to what extent film is a medium uniquely suited for depicting and attempting to understand modernity’s paradoxes.
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 a 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, violence in the family, intersectionality, and critical perspectives. 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. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 22 Literature, Science, and Technology
Prof. Greg Toy
The rapid acceleration of technological development in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has given rise to an increasing number of literary and cultural works that envision technical solutions to the world’s ecological and health crises. This seminar investigates how artists, filmmakers, and writers from diverse backgrounds have adopted the conventions of speculative fiction--fantasy, science fiction, and horror--to imagine the promise and peril of scientific innovation. As we navigate an array of cultural ephemera, literary works, and popular media, we will explore topics ranging from scientific racism to reproductive justice and consider how storytelling intervenes in the study of science and technology. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 23 How to understand the world, and lie, with maps
Prof. James Sadd
“You can't use an old map to explore a new world.” – Albert Einstein
Maps have powerful effects on people, and knowing where things are, and why, is essential to rational decision making. Changes in mapping technology and the rapid expansion of different types of geographic information will affect your future in powerful, sometimes inaccurate, ways. In this course, you will develop an appreciation for maps and map-like images, and skills to both create and interpret them. You will learn different mapping techniques and make your own maps using computer and internet-based tools, interpret maps made by others, and see how different types of bias affects what a person sees, or thinks they see, on a map. You will evaluate real and imagined spatial relationships, the psychology of cartography, how all maps lie (they have to…) and their use as propaganda, examining topics including racial segregation, disease clusters, natural hazards, crime and safety, and metrics of environmental quality.
FYS 24 Cultural Anthropology & Other/Realities
Prof. Alex Bolyanatz
Cultural anthropology emerged within the past two centuries as a means of coming to grips with the diversity of ways of being human. While cultural anthropology’s history has been tainted by collusion with racist and imperialist programs, it remains the single loudest academic voice on behalf of indigenous peoples around the world—not only in terms of advocacy for such folks, but also in terms of fomenting understanding of people who are not like us. In this course, we will look at a part of the world—New Ireland, Papua New Guinea—that is different, in many respects, from the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) societies from which most, if not all, of the students in this class come. In doing so, we will discover that non-WEIRD societies have a logic to their ways of being and relating, and that sometimes, WEIRD ways of doing things are, well, weird. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 25 Los Angeles Cultures and Subcultures
Prof. Jan Lin
This course explores LA urban cultures and subcultures in the last 150 years in defining, elaborating, and staging an alternative to the region’s sociological and cultural norms. We emphasize urban neighborhoods as crucibles of a bold and controversial multiculturalism as the course takes us from the railroad era and Arroyo Culture through the mid-20th century freeway era to more recent trends in downtown redevelopment and gentrification. We examine a series of bohemian revolts against increasingly oppressive and conformist norms and the development of a counter-hegemonic political aesthetics particularly expressed through music and the visual arts that have informed and inspired movements for liberation and expression by African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 26 Arguing with Science: The Practice and Communication of Scientists
Section 1: Prof. Gretchen North
Section 2: Prof. Justin Li
"Science!" is a media meme, yet it is at the same time a culturally and politically charged subject. This course will explore the double meaning of arguing with science. First, we'll examine how people work with science and use it to help make sense of the world. Second, we'll examine how science is communicated and why people might mistrust both science and scientists. Students will probe the scientific method, in particular, how hypotheses and observations work together in the formation of scientific theory, acknowledging the appropriate role of skepticism in the process. Simultaneously, students will learn to communicate the nuances of a scientific understanding to the public, focusing on topics that have broad societal impacts on their own communities. Students will gain experience in scientific thinking, reading, and writing, as well as insight into how science can be used (or misused) in addressing contemporary problems. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 27 Performing Disease
Prof. Sarah Kozinn
In this course students will explore the representation and politicization of disease--and of specific diseases, including HIV/AIDS, TB, and COVID-19--and we will focus on how performances both intervene or amplify such representation and politicization. We will study performances created in response to the AIDS crisis, from the street protests of ACT UP to shows that made it to Broadway to performance artists who use their body explicitly. We will study work that explores aging and illness, including choreographer Bill T. Jones’ dance Still/Here and the choreography of Anna Halprin. We will also explore current performances that engage with illness such as pieces created this past year about the COVID crisis to performers who work and perform with and for people with life threatening illness. We will analyze all of these performances with the help of theorists of disease and performance studies who will help us unpack the fantasies and romanticization of diseases, as well as the ways in which putting "sick" bodies on stage challenges the frameworks used to define illness. By the end of the course, students will be better able to see the work, impact, and meaning of putting illness on stage. This course is part of the Humanities for Just Communities (HJC) curriculum. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 28 Arrivals: From Columbus to War of the Worlds
Prof. Samuel Luterbacher
Whether land, sea, outer space, or even the future, the image of a foreign vessel arriving from a far-off place has long captured diverse cultural imaginations. The image of “the arrival” now so familiar to the sci-fi genre has its roots in the much older story of European expansion, colonization, and conquest at the end of the fifteenth century. This seminar will explore the long arc of the “arrival” theme’s manifestation in art, literature, and cinema from the early modern era to our present time. We will consider how tropes like traveling ships and first contact recur in history, myth, and prophecy; notions of discovery and new beginnings mingle with violent colonial conquest and extraterrestrial invasion. Examples of the arriving ship will appear in a wide range of media, including paintings, maps, book illustrations, and movies. Open only to first-year students.
FYS 29 Representing Capitalism
Prof. Sami Siegelbaum
Is it possible to see capitalism? How can something that is simultaneously so totalizing and abstract while also enmeshed in our everyday environment and activities be represented? How have artists, writers, and filmmakers attempted to provide a picture of the complex economic system that imperceptibly links our daily lives with the entire world? This course will focus on the various strategies contemporary artists, theorists, and other cultural practitioners have explored to make capitalism visible and intelligible in the era of globalization.. Open only to first-year students.