Faculty Seminar/Presentation Descriptions

On Friday, August 29th, you will attend the Faculty Seminar you were assigned over the summer. You will need to complete the readings assigned for your seminar before arriving to campus so you are fully prepared to engage the material being presented during the seminar and during the breakout sessions immediately following the seminars.

The locations of the seminars will be indicated on the Moodle course page once they have all been finalized.  If you are unsure about how to find a particular location, you should ask your RA, an Orientation Leader, or email the Dean of Students Office.

If you have any questions, please email Scott Backer in the Dean of Student's Office.

The Faculty Seminars for FYM:FTF The Age of Humankind are now finalized; any changes or updates will be posted here and in Moodle. The seminar descriptions, including the associated readings, are also available through Moodle which you can access through your E-Portfolio; you can also review the descriptions below.

The End of the Anthropocene

Brian Stewart, Professor of Physics

The beginning of the era in which humankind became a global geological force lies in the twentieth century, though the seeds were surely sown with the onset of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. Or perhaps it was with the neolithic revolution some ten thousand years ago. Or when a naked ape learned to control fire....

What about the end of the anthropocene? If it has a beginning, surely it has an end. Naturally, thinking about the future end of humanity's technological dominance of the natural world must lie in the realm of speculation. Nevertheless, history and physical science can help us discern the broad outlines of how global civilization and its influence on the geo-ecosphere will ultimately decline. Apart from being a fascinating exercise in science fiction, such speculation can teach us to distinguish possible outcomes from fantasies.

Does Human Psychology Change?

Jill Morawski, Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of Psychology

This seminar is full; please select another option.

We now have significant knowledge about the ways that humans have altered the planet and its non-human inhabitants, but these extensive and important understandings have largely overlooked the question of whether human psychology also has changed. Humans are assumed to be rather stable entities whose rationality (or irrationality) is neuro-chemically structured, as are emotions, drives, and inclinations. Yet, in contrast to this prevailing notion of human stability, we humans have devised and consume a host of technologies aimed at changing ourselves (meditation, therapy, pharmacology, and the like). This seminar examines these understanding of human stability and mutability, asking are humans changing? If so, what changes us? Do our technologies of change work? If so, do they work as is assumed? We will discuss several readings proposing that human kind does change, as evidenced by the cases of neuro-feedback therapies and onset of trauma associated with parenthood. We will consider, too, how some of these changes are influenced by the very scientific knowledge that presumes human stability.

The Paradox of Human Dominion

Michael Singer, Associate Professor of Biology

The scientific evidence that human activity dominates the global ecosystem is indisputable. Hence, we find ourselves in the Anthropocene epoch, the age of humans. Climate change has emerged as the banner environmental issue of our time, although for decades environmental scientists and activists have signaled alarms about it in conjunction with the loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems at the hand of humanity. What is so special about climate change? Unlike the exploitation of other species and ecosystems, climate change poses a great immediate threat to the wealth and power of civilization. Even as some will find ways to profit from the effects of climate change, it is increasingly obvious that extreme weather and the resulting natural disasters can be catastrophic to all sectors of society. A paradox of human dominion is crystalizing: civilization as we know it provides many people with a higher standard of living than they would have otherwise, yet the unsustainable resource use that has made this possible is proving to be self-destructive within our own lifetimes. Another part of the paradox comes back to biodiversity and ecosystems. Humanity exerts such a large influence over the conditions that determine the life and death of other species that our actions are not only the source of many of their problems, but also their main source of salvation. Never before have the decisions of the public, governments, and corporations held such consequence for the viability of civilization and the shape of the planet. We must re-think and re-work the infrastructure of civil society if the age of humans is to last.

Living and dying with other animals in the Anthropocene

Lori Gruen, Professor of Philosophy

Human activities have had unprecedented impact on the more-than-human world. In this seminar we will explore some of the ways that human activities are having impacts on other animals living more or less freely ("wild" as opposed to "domesticated" animals). We will explore questions about the ethical responsibilities that might spring from our complex relationships, including discussions of conservation, relocation, and intervening in predation.

The Machine in the Garden

Jennifer Tucker, Associate Professor of History

Why has the idea of the Anthropocenetaken hold, and how is the concept different from earlier geological accounts of mass species extinction? In this seminar, blending intellectual and natural history, art and science, we ask how perspectives from the history of science and art illuminate the current debate over predictions of a Sixth Extinction. Our exploration of scientific efforts to understand mass extinction from the eighteenth century to today is framed by viewing and discussion of selected pictures from the history of earth sciences - from eighteenth century scientific engravings of fossils to models of extinct dinosaurs at Victorian England's Crystal Palace to Rudolph F. Zallinger's mural of "The Age of Reptiles" to contemporary satellite images of vegetation loss. What can the study of historical and social contexts of scientific knowledge reveal about contemporary society on the brink of change?

The Political Atmosphere of Climate Change

Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies

This presentation will make reference to repeated assessments of the risks involved in climate change. It will begin with coverage of assessments since 2006. It will focus on the definition of "consensus". And it will focus primary attention on the United States. The readings focus there. You will have read an overview of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, but you will have access to the background information. We will discuss the degree to which that was accessible. The second reading will provide an independent response to skeptical criticism of the Report. We will review the context for both readings, and then have a discussion about (1) climate change risks and (2) the political environment within which the broader discussion persists. The presentation of what you have read will not take very long (per a Wesleyan classroom). The discussion will be lead by you - pros and cons and policy prescription and whatever....


Ruth Nisse, Associate Professor of English

What does it mean for the human to become animal or for the divine to become human? Such transformations are miraculous, frightening, and profoundly problematic. In this session, we will address the theme of shape-shifting as imagined by poets and theologians in medieval Europe. Among the fundamental issues raised by metamorphosis are human identity, bodily integrity, sexual fluidity, and religious belief.

Relying (More or Less) on the Kindness of Strangers

Gilbert Skillman, Professor of Economics

This seminar is full; please select another option.

Humans have unusual capabilities, and that makes them potentially dangerous. With their big(gish) brains, opposable thumbs, and communication abilities, they have the capacity to do a lot of damage to other species, to the planet they share with those others, and to each other, and they've been known to exercise this capacity to an alarming extent. Knowing this, it's a wonder that people do not spend the preponderance of their time defending against possible attacks from other people. But (shifting perspective here) we do not do that, as a rule, and what's more, we generally proceed as though we can trust other humans not only not to harm us, but to work with us in achieving mutually desired ends. As Paul Seabright points out in the reading from his book The Company of Strangers, this has not always been the case, and he discusses the fundamental historical transformation that has permitted a truly remarkable, if inconsistent, level of social cooperation. In the first chapter of his book The Possibility of Cooperation, Michael Taylor considers the underlying reality that makes this remarkable: at a basic level, interpersonal relationships arguably take the form of a prisoner's dilemma, a form of social interaction with the perverse feature that individually rational (or at least rationalizable) behavior leads to outcomes that everyone would prefer to avoid. The reading from William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma gives some background on the conception and analysis of this game, and reports on a flawed but suggestive experiment indicating the possibilities that arise when the game is played repeatedly.

Anthropocene: A Thorny Term

Catherine Poisson, Associate Professor of French

This seminar is full; please select another option.

Is there a human? Can the human be reduced to an unique model? The purpose of this seminar will be three-fold. It will explore the question of representation of the human being through paintings and a film. It will discuss the obliteration of cultural differences in seeing the human as one and only one, and dwell on the notion of collective blame.

Natural Beauty and Environmentalism

Ludmila Guenova, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

This seminar is full; please select another option.

In this seminar, we will examine the relationship between our aesthetic appreciation of nature and our moral and political responsibility for preserving our environment. We will focus on the arguments of three contemporary philosophers who try to work out the connection between our experience of natural beauty and our environmental concerns. We will ask questions, such as: What is the proper way of appreciating the beauty of nature? Can our scientific understanding of nature enrich our aesthetic experience? Can the pleasure we take in natural beauty foster our commitment to environmentalism or might it hinder it instead?

Stop Making Sense

Joseph Fitzpatrick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Letters

This seminar is full; please select another option.

If scientists are now taking seriously the physical changes that humans effect upon the world in which we live, they can do so thanks in no small part to philosophers and artists who have explained how the world is conceptually constructed through the building of theories and the telling of stories. To help us make sense of the world around us, these theories and stories should (we have come to expect) be both meaningful and true. This seminar will examine situations that produce a conflict between meaning and truth, asking how we make sense of a world in which we can arrive at one only by choosing to forgo the other.

Being Human in an Animate World, or Ways of Talking to Trees

Justine Quijada, Assistant Professor of Religion

One of the tasks of anthropology is to learn about other ways of living so that we can begin to imagine how one might live in other ways and otherwise. In this talk I explore both Mongolian shamanic practices and early essays by Marx, as ways of imagining how one might live otherwise. We usually think of Marx as an economic analyst, but in his early writings he makes it clear that his interest in economics stems from a desire to foster a society where people relate to each other directly rather than mediated by money. But for Marx, nature remains merely the raw material for human creativity. Shamanic practices suggest that the kind of unmediated relationship between people that Marx seeks may also be possible with the world around us. Using images from my fieldwork in Siberia, specifically tree shrines, will explore what such a relationship might look like and how ritual might be the way to create it.

Dancing Bodies, Communities, and Environments

Nicole Stanton, Associate Professor of Dance

This seminar is full; please select another option.

As human beings we come to know the world through our senses, our bodies, with that in mind, this interactive seminar takes as a point of departure the question: how do the ways we experience and enact our own corporeality impact the way we live in and experience our communities and our environments? We will also take up the questions of how performance and the dancing body can expand our understanding of those relationships and serve as a site of political resistance and social change.

To that end, we will practice physical activities that help us tune in to our physical sensations and wake up our creative impulses. The work requires no previous dance experience but does require a willingness to get moving with others.

Please read the attached chapters by Dance and Environmental Professor, Andrea Olsen. They contain sections entitled "To Do." Please select one of the "To Do" activities and complete it before the seminar. Take a few moments to write down your experiences with the activities, as we will talk about them during our meeting.

"Free your mind"-Thinking Blackly as Thinking the Human

Rachel Ellis Neyra, Assistant Professor of English

This seminar is full; please select another option.

This seminar will move in relation to ongoing study and discussion in Black, Queer, and Feminist Studies about how to imagine a future. Imagining a future involves thinking optimistically, utopically, while carving out articulations of how humans survive historical violences from within this strange place that we call the present. Since "beautiful things" help us survive, we are going to discuss how you have looked at and listened to a small cluster of different aesthetic forms, a drop in the bucket to send you on your way to a better future: Funkadelic's 1970 song, "Free your mind and your ass will follow"; John Sayles' 1984 sci-fi film, The Brother from Another Planet; Mark Dery's 1993 interview that coined the term, "Afro-futurism"; and a 1981 lyric poem by Caribbean, Nobel Prize-winning poet, Derek Walcott, "The Season of Phantasmal Peace". The point of this reading and listening exercise is to engage specific movements that will "free your mind" by showing you how to think blackly, since to do so is to imagine "the mass improvisation and protection of the very idea of the human",as Fred Moten has said.

In the Age of Humans

Peter Mark, Professor of Art History

This seminar is full; please select another option.

What is it that defines to be human? What is the link between being fully human and the humanities? What is distinctive about "us"? I address these questions not from a scientific perspective, not in terms of the genome or of evolution, nor of the relation of 'homo sapiens' to other members of the animal kingdom. I ask rather as a cultural historian . . . and I propose that the answer, in part, lies precisely in the existence of "culture". But what is culture? Is it the embodiment of the highest of human aspirations, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic? In part, yes. Then what about the dark side of human culture? This summer we observe the centennial of the start of World War I. A century on, August 1914 appears, not as the start of "the War to end all wars"; but rather as only the beginning of the first act in the most violent century in human history. What lessons might the legacy of this violent century offer you, as students entering a university noted for the study of the "liberal arts"?