First Year Seminars

Last updated: August 28, 2009 at 11:15 a.m.

First Year Seminars

First Year Seminars (FYS) are special courses specifically designed for first-year students. Although not required, the seminars provide an excellent foundation for undergraduate studies at Brandeis. Under the close guidance of faculty, students are able to experience the intense intellectual engagement of a seminar and interactive small class environment.

These courses explicitly address development of analysis, writing, and oral communication. The seminars incorporate multiple perspectives (disciplinary or interdisciplinary) in addressing significant issues, questions and problems.   

The seminars are also skill-oriented: they encourage students to develop analytical, writing, and oral communication skills. Class discussions, under faculty guidance, help students to formulate key questions and to construct a critical analysis of the author’s or artist’s assumptions, evidence, and argumentation. In addition, they allow students to develop and share insights and ideas, thus learning from each other.

Courses of Instruction

(1-99) Primarily for Undergraduate Students

FYS 1b Jewish Literatures in Eastern Europe
[ hum ]
The emergence of a modern literary consciousness was one of the results of the breakup of traditional Jewish society. Examines some of the leading Jewish writers in Eastern Europe who wrote in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, or Russian.
Mr. Polonsky (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 2a Divergent Jewish Cultures: Israel and America
[ hum ]
Examines the shaping of identities of descendants of European Jews who emigrated to the United States and to Israel. It posits the continuity of common bonds amidst growing divergence in the encounter with distinctive social and political ecologies.
Mr. Troen (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 2c Physical Science Frontiers
[ sn ]
A year-long seminar open only to first-year students in the physical science scholars program.
This seminar is designed to introduce students to topics of current research in mathematics, computer science, physics, and chemistry. The class time includes both lectures and interactive activities.
Ms. Charney (Mathematics) and Mr. Hickey (Computer Science)

FYS 4a Literacy and Development
[ hum wi ]
Studies various definitions and forms of literacy across cultures and eras as depicted in literature and social science texts. Students' personal literacy stories are part of the curriculum.
Ms. Hale (Romance Studies)

FYS 5b Conceptions of the Good Life
[ oc ss ]
Explores competing conceptions of the ‘good life’ and of moral right and how these conceptions vary within different cultural periods in history. We also debate competing standards for justifying claims that one way of life is better than another through interactive activities. Included are conceptions of the ‘good life’ as pleasure (Epicurus), as virtuous activity (Aristotle), as duty (Kant), as utilitarianism (J.S Mill), as self-assertion (Nietzsche), as faith (Kierkegaard), as aesthetics, and as spirituality.
Ms. Hayim (Sociology)

FYS 7a Science, Evolution, and Design
[ hum ]
This seminar considers several versions of the argument from design for the existence of God, culminating in a critical examination of the contemporary debate over intelligent design theory and the claim that it is a genuine science.
Ms. Smalligan (Philosophy)

FYS 8a Metamorphosis
[ hum wi ]
Examines how literature responds, internally and externally, to the challenge that change poses for the individual and society. Metamorphosis, the transformation of one object into another, is the primary focus within each text studied, but considerable time is also spent in determining how each text relates to the others with which it shares characters, plots, and themes. As multiple versions of a few particular stories are read, only students with a tolerance for repetition and an appreciation for variation should consider enrolling.
Ms. Walker (Classical Studies)

FYS 9a The Wandering Hero in Ancient Literature
[ hum ]
Focuses on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Examines such issues as friendship, social responsibility, the meaning of life, mortality and immortality, the difference between the human and the divine. Texts are read from Mesopotamia, Greece, Israel, and Canaan, which intersect literally and thematically with the epic, such as The Odyssey, Genesis, Aqhat, Ecclesiastes, and selected Sumerian narratives.
Mr. Abusch (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 9b Going to Hell: Journeys to the Underworld
[ hum ]
Why does the theme of a living being, either divine or human, going to visit the world of the dead occur in several cultures? This seminar explores connections to the meaning of life and justice within the specific cultures engendering each text.
Ms. Walker (Classical Studies)

FYS 12a The "I" in the Storm: Writers Respond to Totalitarianism
[ hum oc ]
Each of us grapples with issues of freedom and social conformity as we struggle to develop and define our identity. This struggle is even more complex for artists and writers living under totalitarian regimes. This seminar examines essays, novels (including graphic novels), and memoirs by twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers that portray the experience of individuals under totalitarianism. What special moral challenges do they face? How do these works explore strength and weakness in the human spirit?
Ms. Kellman (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 12b Hand and Brain
[ ss ]
The specialized developments of the human hand and the parallel developments of the brain, tool use, sign language, and language acquisition are discussed. The control of voluntary movements is a key focus. Includes laboratory demonstrations.
Mr. Lackner (Psychology)

FYS 13a Coming of Age in Literature
[ hum ]
What manes growing up such a compelling theme, even for adult readers? This seminar introduces students to several novels which feature characters who come of age. Authors include, Dickens, Salinger, Dangarembga, Diaz, and others.
Ms. Anjaria (English and American Literature)

FYS 15b The Black Panther Party
[ ss ]
This seminar studies the history, legacy, and controversy of one of the most popular and infamous Black Power era organizations, the Black Panther Party. Examining the group's combination of militant rhetoric and paramilitary accoutrements, along with social-minded programs that offered an alternative vision to the Civil Rights Movement, students will gain an understanding for how the group and its leaders engaged in a quest for black liberation by any means necessary. Focus includes the Panthers' dark underside and obstacles plaguing its existence such as lack of internal democracy, sexism, and ideological disputes, all forcing the group to succumb to a campaign of systematic harassment, incarceration, and murder during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mr. Joseph (African and Afro-American Studies)

FYS 17a Through a Gendered Lens: Women and Men in Modern Jewish Culture
[ hum ]
Gender roles are changing rapidly in modern Jewish society. Engages students in an interdisciplinary investigation of the roots of these changes. Examines male and female roles in pre-modern European Jewish culture and the transformations in gender relations, education, family, and religious life that took place during the Haskalah (Enlightenment) Movement of the nineteenth century and up to the start of the Holocaust. Readings are drawn from fiction, poetry, and autobiography originally written in Yiddish and Hebrew and from recent studies in cultural history.
Ms. Kellman (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 18a Understanding Evil and Human Destiny
[ hum ]
Designed to introduce students to some of the Western classics that deal with the impact of evil on human destiny. Suffering, justice, and death are studied in their relationship with God, the world, and history.
Mr. Kimelman (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 20b Art and the Asian City: Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong
[ ca ]
Studies the evolution of the urban environment in three modern Asian cities and its impact on the visual arts. Examines the city as the financial and cultural hub of the nation, as well as the site of clashing cultural identities, personal anxieties, and civic crises.
Ms. Wong (Fine Arts)

FYS 24b The Howl of Simple Words: Reading Gender in Israeli Literature and Cinema
[ hum ]
The poet Rachel Bluwstein describes her poetics as "the howl of simple words." With these words she exposes the normative expectation of women's writing at the beginning of the century, on the one hand, and the subversive potential that lies in women's creativity, on the other. This seminar explores this ongoing duality in Modern Hebrew literature and Israeli cinema.
Ms. Szobel (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 25a The Artist Behind their Work
[ ca ]
No previous painting or drawing experience required.
Students will gain a deeper appreciation for the artist's approach, style, and content through the execution/replication of a chosen artist's work, along with extensive research defining the artist's life, including the political, social, and economic effects that inspired his/her work.
Mr. Moody (Theater Arts)

FYS 25b Trials of Truth, Power, and Justice
[ hum ]
Engages questions of truth, power, and justice in trials seen in literature, philosophy, history, journalism, political propaganda, and film. Trials purport to assess and adjudicate conflicting claims of truth and falsehood, guilt and innocence, within the constraints of formal principles and according to the dictates of established procedure.
Mr. Sheppard (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 26b Maps of Hidden Worlds: From the Cosmos to the Human Genome
[ sn ]
Explores the science behind making maps of worlds that we cannot perceive with our senses. In particular, this seminar examines maps of the universe around us and maps of the cells within us. The approach is historical, covering the great discoveries that have culminated in the mapping of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the sequencing of the human genome. Some of the questions considered are: How does one measure the distance to a galaxy far, far away? How do we know the age of the universe? What does it mean to sequence the human genome? What is nature's nanotechnology and how do we discover it?
Mr. Kondev (Physics)

FYS 28b The Jewish Family: Past and Present
[ hum ]
Examines the transformation of the Jewish family in four different settings (Europe, America, North Africa, and the Middle East) from medieval to modern times, focusing primarily on the internal dynamics of family life and interaction with majority cultures.
Ms. Freeze (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 30a The Shape of Space
[ sn ]
What shape is the universe? How can we tell? This course will explore ideas from geometry and topology in two and three dimensions and their relation to cosmology. Students will work in groups on problems, games, and exercises of the imagination to develop an understanding of these geometric objects.
Ms. Charney (Mathematics)

FYS 32b Crime and Punishment in History
[ ss ]
Examines how America and other Western political communities have defined, represented, and punished crime. Discusses diverse texts--speeches, court cases, memoirs, novels, and films--to develop a critical historical perspective on such concepts as evil, responsibility, and justice.
Mr. Willrich (History)

FYS 34a A Haunted America: American Dreamers as Wanderers, Visionaries, Isolates
[ hum oc wi ]
In Langston Hughes' poem "Dream Deferred," the question is posed, "What happens to a dream deferred?" Examines what happens to the twentieth-century dreamer lured, often obsessed, and frequently tormented by the promise of the mythic American dream. The class will map an America haunted by various definitions of the dream, its displacement, its erosions, and its reinventions.
Ms. Whelan (English and American Literature)

FYS 36b Drama and Social Issues
[ hum ]
What are the values and purposes of drama? What drama can tell us about violence and sexuality, about political relationships, and about ourselves is explored through plays by writers from Sophocles to Calderón to Dorfman.
Ms. Fox (Romance Studies)

FYS 41a Darwin's "On the Origin of Species"
[ oc sn ]
The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. We will celebrate these occasions by taking the time to read this often cited, sometimes maligned, but seldom read book. Each chapter of the Origin provides an invitation not only to discuss evolution and natural selection, but also to consider Darwin¿s life, Victorian times, the nature of science, philosophy, geology, embryology, island biogeography, and the history of life on Earth.
Mr. Morris (Biology)

FYS 51a Trauma and Memory in the Literary Imagination
[ hum wi ]
Examines the work of writers who have borne witness to traumatic events from war and genocide to family violence and interracial conflict. In addition to first-person accounts that narrate extreme experience, readings include critical studies in the meaning of trauma and its representations. Studies the ways trauma is figured in Holocaust literature, memoirs about the family, a novel about the legacy of slavery, and in individually chosen texts. The study ends with a unit on witnessing today's traumas, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina, and the role of visual documents in the process of bearing witness to extreme experiences.
Ms. Skorczewski (English and American Literature)

FYS 51b Assumed Identities
[ hum wi ]
From antiquity to the present, writers have been fascinated by the protagonist who
achieves selfhood by means of adopting an assumed identity. Characters disguise
their identities, dissimulate, and masquerade as others, sometimes imitating
models but often employing deception as a means of realizing self-change,
thereby raising ethical questions. Each of our texts explores issues of masking
and character imitation. Readings include selections from Dante, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Soldati, Lardner, Conrad, and others.
Mr. Lansing (Romance and Comparative Literature)

FYS 53a Between Conflict and Cooperation: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain
[ hum ]
An examination of social and intellectual interaction among the three religious communities of medieval Spain, focusing on literature, philosophy, and religion (including mysticism). Will study how the interaction of the three faiths helped produce a unique culture.
Mr. Decter (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 53b Common Questions, Different Answers: The Bible and Near Eastern Literature
[ hum ]
Archaeological and textual finds of the last one and a half centuries have radically changed how we read the Bible. We now have thousands of previously unknown texts from all over the Near East that provide a new framework for interpretation. Near Eastern literature asks many of the same questions as the Bible. How are the answers the texts give similar to or different from one another?
Mr. Wright (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)

FYS 61b Stigmatized Identities
[ ss ]
Society creates stigmas that can stain one's reputation. Examines sources and forms of stigmatization and managing stigmatized identities, focusing on deviance, disabilities, and the Hollywood "blacklist." Investigates stigma through text, film, and firsthand interviews.
Mr. Conrad (Sociology)

FYS 62b How Science Is Really Done
[ sn ]
Science is seen by many as the "culture of our times," yet popular misconceptions about science abound. This course examines a variety of discoveries to learn how scientists actually go about their work and how ethical issues and competition affect discovery. The required readings explore ways in which science as a creative activity is linked to pursuits in the humanities. A genuine interest in science is required.
Ms. Cohen (Biology)

FYS 68b The Art of Living
[ hum wi ]
What do we want from life? How do consciousness and imagination help and hinder us along our journeys? This seminar examines literary and philosophical texts that challenge received ideas about how the mind and life intertwine, such as Plato's Symposium, the Tao Te Ching, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Nabokov's Lolita, and others.
Mr. Powelstock (German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)

FYS 70a Desires and Awakenings: The Search for Identity in Modern Drama
[ ca ]
Engage in the search for personal, social, and national identity through great dramatic literature of the modern era. Theater is a mirror through which we can see ourselves and our world. These classic works, reflecting the ideas of the pioneering playwrights who created them, have shaped not only the nature of theatre and art, but thought and behavior in the last 100 years. Discussions will focus on the plays as literature, history, psychology, and performance while examining their relevance in today¿s society and our lives. Explores a range of topics including family, religion, politics, economics, race, gender, death, sexuality, cultural assimilation, and the concept of "modernity."
Mr. Edmiston (Theater Arts)

FYS 76a Law and the Search for Authority
[ ss ]
Examines how societies seek to justify their basic legal rules. Readings drawn from political, historical, and philosophical works that search for ultimate legal principles in written constitutions, totalitarian authority, custom and tradition, or the fallible capacities of human reason.
Mr. Gaskins (American Studies)

FYS 83b Science in Art
[ sn ]
How do we know whether that painting or that sculpture is "genuine"? Usually, it's because we take the word of the museum or the art dealer. But many works of art are discredited every day as new methods are applied to determine the "fine structure" of a particular artifact. Art objects are looked at critically, from the point of view of the conservator, who has to determine a piece's value before it is bought or displayed.
Ms. Ringe (Chemistry/Biochemistry)

FYS 87b Seeking Justice: Jews and Germans
[ hum ]
The relationship between Jews and Germans is defined by the most horrific crime against humanity, the Holocaust. How could a modern civilized nation like Germany perpetrate the Nazi crimes? What led to Hitler's success and how have Jews and Germans overcome a history of injustice since 1945?
Ms. von Mering (German, Russian, and Asian Languages and Literature)