Spark Seminars Spring 2021
Students will be able to enroll in one of these seminars to fulfill the SPARK General Education Requirement. *For first year students beginning Fall 2020 or Spring 2021. (Updated 11/13/20)
Taught by: Doreen Danielson
If we continue to improve and evolve Artificial Intelligence (AI) potential and capabilities, will we, as humans, maintain our ethics, value, and functionality? In this seminar, you will explore the complexity of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as it continues to develop in prominent fields such as Biological Sciences, Bio-engineering, Computer Science and Technology, Mathematics, Chemical Sciences, Medicine, Business, and others depending on your interests. You will develop strategical skills to identify and evaluate the many roles of AI, explore your favorite field of interest by choosing a company or product, investigate AI's ever-developing presence in your chosen company or product, and attempt to answer a research question that you develop after completing your innovative investigation. To accomplish these steps, you will closely study your chosen company or product, conduct interviews, prepare evaluative presentations, and confidently represent your primary research question(s) and chosen company or product's use of AI by submitting a final research paper.
Taught by: Miriam Barlow
This seminar will enable to students to gather and evaluate information relevant to the local community through primary local sources, primary literature sources, and secondary sources such as news and review articles, form opinions based on that information and to question current practices. Students will also learn to share their research findings through written and oral/visual presentations. To accomplish these goals, students will learn about different antibiotic consumers and stake holders through in class lectures and discussions. They will then take on some aspect of antibiotic consumption or use in the Central Valley and develop a question about current practices. The students will then investigate that question through literature searches and interviews with local sources and communicate their findings in two research papers, an in class presentation, and a round table discussion where competing interests are represented.
Taught by: Holley Moyes
This course in the field of archaeology interfaces with science, history, and popular culture. The goal is to encourage critical thinking and teach you the social context of the discipline of archaeology. It incorporates components of reading, writing, and basic research and library skills. It will examine how archaeology is presented to the general public, explore the myths about archaeology and archaeologists, and contrast these popular constructs with archaeological realities. It provides an overview of archaeological epistemologies including basic archaeological history, theories, methods, and practices including the ways in which data are recognized, recovered, analyzed, interpreted, and presented. By taking this approach, the course seeks to encourage better consumers of not just archaeological media but of all media by teaching critical thinking skills. You analyze public representations by evaluating the sender, the media, and the message. The course also encourages an appreciation of historic preservation efforts and hopes to instill in you a proprietary sense so that you will take a proactive stance in the stewardship of the faint, fragile and irreplaceable archaeological record.
Taught by: Susan Varnot
To pay attention or not to pay attention: In a digital world, is a machine more attentive or intuitive than we are? To what extent are we doing our own thinking? What do we pay attention to or ignore, and how in control are we of noticing and of the present moment? What happens when data points are created for us? For how long can we pay attention to what? What do we do with our attention? In this seminar, we will examine how the artist -- in a larger, general sense -- examines and enacts art through the everyday "work" of art, in large part noticing as someone who intends to live and invent meaning not yet created. In contrast, we will also examine how the internet and advertising culture, or as one writer on the subject puts it, how "the attention merchants" buy and sell our attention. Throughout this course, we will seek to answer questions on what our attention is, how it is crafted, and how we can become more aware and craft it to be creative thinkers, individuals, and scholars -- or how we can enact the everyday work of art and noticing in our personal and academic lives.
Taught by: Alicia Contreras
This course explores the "border" as both a concept and physical space in Mexican America. In order to examine the border's complexity, you will learn to produce and grapple with relevant research questions; write creatively and critically on the subject; and discuss and deliberate the subject's ambiguous meaning. Such acquired skills will improve your ability to think, write, and communicate clearly and effectively, especially as you deal with a common yet contested term like the "border." This course will give you the opportunity to read and view an array of Chicana/o novels, stories, and films that contemplate the border in various ways. These texts range in setting and topic, beginning with the borderland U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-1848 and ending with the contemporary city life of a Mexican daughter trapped within her family's borders. To enhance your analytical skills, you will also read critical essays on how the border functions interculturally and intraculturally, as both a physical space of conflict and potentially ideological place of healing. Finally, this class will equip you with the intellectual tools needed to investigate and understand how the border or the "wall" exists, changes, and persists in American politics and society today.
Taught by: Matthew Nye (second section)
This course asks how the built environment communicates cultural values. Students will analyze both real-world architectural case studies alongside representations in literature and film to understand the aesthetic, ethical, political, and cultural desires underlying our buildings, cities, and infrastructure. Students will learn to read the ways that space shapes behavior, community, and cultural memory. Topics may include: sustainability, gentrification, environmental racism, memorial architecture, etc. In this experiential and interdisciplinary seminar, we will read theoretical texts as well as experience architecture directly to deepen our understanding of the interface between humans and our built environments.
Taught by: Mary Soltis
A key to understanding the intricacies of any community happens through exploration and interaction. In this seminar, students will have opportunities to interact with community members through Community Mapping, an inquiry-based method of collecting, analyzing, and understanding resources and artifacts within a chosen community. Students will become “mappers” to discover, gather, and analyze a variety of resources in a specific geographic location while developing a new understanding of the cultural practices and those resources that make up the community. Students will learn and use various mapping techniques, and in collaboration with community partners, will develop research questions within their field of study to better understand the challenges that communities experience.
Taught by: Ryan Page
In this course, students will read and analyze works encompassing the history of the detective fiction genre and its precursors, from the eighteenth century to the present. In examining these texts, we will be exploring the historical development of this generic cultural form, studying the components of this form, and especially considering the target audience or readership for such works. Students will then be asked to contextualize these fictional narratives by researching the historical circumstances surrounding the production of such works, including the development of modern law enforcement agencies, actual criminal cases, and the evolution of sociological theories about crime and criminals. Given the continuing popularity of the detection crime genre in contemporary media, we will obviously be addressing the reasons for the success and durability of these sort of stories, but the particular focus of our work in this course will be on the nature and attributes of the criminal (the detective's nemesis) in the genre. How, in the very particular species of crime fiction called the detective story, is criminality envisioned, in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, and volition? What is the relation of these features of the criminal to the detective? Or to the reader? Or, especially interestingly, to the projection of the author? As G. K. Chesterton once claimed, "the criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic."
Taught by: Elizabeth Cunningham (second section)
In 1991, less than half a percent of the world’s population were online. Two decades later, nearly half of the world’s population use the internet. The changes brought about by this Digital Revolution have informed nearly every aspect—economic, relational, educational, creative, spatial—of our lives. While the internet is still relatively young, its historical impacts are indisputable. This course will examine those impacts, and the ways in which the Digital Age shapes our self-definition. We will examine issues related to access, privacy, information overload, automation, and digital literacy. Students will monitor their own digital consumption throughout this course, and will develop a final research project based on independent scholarship.
Taught by: Susan Bohrer
In this course students will explore the construction and representation of diverse identities, by questioning the cultural, social, political and scientific depictions of difference to establish what is "normal". Through texts and images, including popular films, students will gain a better understanding of the relationships between race, ethnicity, gender and disability as these identities are influenced by labels and standards. In addition, students will consider how these norms may marginalize individuals and groups. Students, by engaging with different disciplinary approaches to the concept of identity, will actively participate in discovering and confronting the problematic nature of their own identities.
Taught by: John Bultena
In this course, you will learn how to generate research questions related to role-playing games, utilizing Dungeons & Dragons as a focus, practice strategies for understanding texts and rules systems, how role-playing games develop collaboration, how to use composition as a tool for exploring and learning, methods for improving your ability to write successful academic papers on any subject, applications for mental health, and improve oral delivery skills. To accomplish these goals, you will examine Dungeons & Dragons and articles about it, keep up with contemporary news regarding Dungeons & Dragons, be aware of skills developed through Dungeons & Dragons, and use collaborative play and narrative generation as a method for learning. In addition, a consistent and constant concern throughout the class will be the skills that role-playing games develop that can be deployed in academia.
Taught by: Jesus Sandoval-Hernandez
Economic Globalization is broadly defined as the interdependence of world economies resulting from the growing scale trade of commodities and services, international capitals flows, and rapid spread of technologies. For more than fifty years, the process of globalization has profoundly changed national economies and international relations. Globalization has enabled many regions of the world to emerge from underdevelopment, as well to boost world production and lower prices. However, recent political developments in several parts of the world suggest a backlash against globalization. The rise of nationalistic movements constitutes a trend towards more protectionism and isolationism. The debate on the economic benefits of this process and on its negative effects has been a constant in the past, but recently has intensified. The course provides with an introduction to key aspects of economic development and basic economic analysis to explain the globalization phenomena. We will review the past waves of economic globalization and their setbacks to understand the current globalization process. Then, we will study these aspects of economic globalization: global trade, international financial integration, foreign direct investment, the role of multinational corporations, regional agreements, and international institutions. Students will examine real-world case studies which illustrate international market integration. Students will also be exposed to Economics methodological tools. This Spark Seminar will challenge students to discover the global chain of economic relationships that affect their everyday lives. What they will find is that their daily milk involves a lot more than just cows and that their Smart Phones are incredibly multicultural. The course will encourage students to critically advance the globalization debate beyond the talking points of “globalists” and nationalists.”
Taught by: Justin Hicks
You will be introduced to fundamental ideas of economic tradeoffs, costs and benefits, and value creation. We will then journey into how entrepreneurs convert ideas into salable actions or products, and how capitalism puts into place real incentives to innovate to try to produce profits. We'll talk about economic measures and the goals that policy makers put into place, and the intended versus unintended consequences. We'll talk about economic growth and how natural resources are viewed and used as a result of prior schools of thought and resulting policies. Finally, we'll delve into why new ideas come into being, and how those new ideas flow around the globe, much like a neural network. This will set the stage to talk about how innovation can be classified, and whether innovation is a fluid phenomenon or rather, a step-wise phenomenon.
Taught by: Sachin Goyal
If birds didn't exist, would engineers ever conceive of inventing a plane? Nature has evolved over geological time scales to achieve such intriguing mechanisms that engineers strive to learn from even today to develop new technologies. In this seminar course, you will brainstorm and investigate how nature can inspire engineering research. We will explore cutting-edge examples of such research from within UC Merced and beyond. Can we surpass nature in our engineering designs? Do we really understand how nature has solved a specific engineering problem? These are the types of questions that we will debate in the context of those research examples.
Taught by: Michelle Toconis
Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale" and Octavia Butler’s "Wild Seed", both from the genre of speculative fiction, serve as the basis from which we will examine oppressive systems, the state of being other or different, and marginality, particularly along the lines of gender and race; in addition, these texts offer alternative ways to think about self, the capacity to act independently and to make one’s own free choices, as well as the means one has to determine their own actions.
In this course, students will learn how: to take the controversies raised in speculative fiction, alternative versions of the past or projections of the possible future, from the "The Handmaid’s Tale" and "Wild Seed" to draw parallels and/or generate real-world research questions, identify problems, and formulate tentative solutions; students will practice the use of multiple interdisciplinary analytical tools to identify, interpret, and evaluate texts and various information; students will work independently and collaboratively applying their research and analysis using written, visual, and oral modes of communication to convey ideas; and students will learn to identify the ways in which cultural, political, economic, technological, and environmental dimensions of society interact understanding that conflict is inherent and welcome in diverse learning communities.
Taught by: De Ette Silbaugh(second section)
In this course, students will look at the impact of food deserts in the City of Merced. Students will engage in their own narrative in relation to food, will learn how to negotiate demographics and statistics, will understand and participate in research, and will be able to determine reliable sources and utilize information within the context of their communication, while improving their ability to read, write and think critically in an academic environment. To accomplish these goals, students in small groups will consider food deserts from a myriad of disciplines by reading about different causes and solutions, analyzing and synthesizing written material and drawing questions and connections from a variety of sources.
By the end of the semester, students will have considered multiple directions to view a single [yet diverse] issue impacting the world today. Students will have also learned and appreciated different points of view by sharing research, synthesizing information and researching potential answers to questions they develop from their findings and ultimately sharing this information in collaborative presentations.
In addition, students will not only become familiar with looking at issues from different presentations, but individual and group responsibilities, time management, respect for others and voicing their opinions and listening well to others. And perhaps the most important is realizing their individual stake in being good guardians of our earth.
Taught by: Heather Devrick (second section)
Games are nearly cultural universals. This course examines the cultural and historical background of games with an emphasis on game development and play in contemporary Western Culture. The course will also introduce students to theories of game play and its importance in the human experience. Students will examine various game genres and styles of game play, such as such as tabletop, role-playing, and video games. Students will also consider how game goals reflect cultural values. The course will require the analysis and deconstruction of games from a variety of critical perspectives. Students will also collaboratively research and design their own game.
Taught by: Jordan Dakin
This seminar functions not only as a survey of the horror, gothic, and weird fiction genres, but also as an interdisciplinary exploration into why we fear what we do. What biological factors and shared social or cultural anxieties serve as the driving forces behind our attitudes towards concepts like fear, death, and the unknown? How do stories from horror’s more nontraditional voices contribute to a broad and diverse range of social and cultural anxieties, and how are these anxieties reflected within their work? Together, we will apply a variety of critical lenses to these works in an attempt to understand how these authors use the weird, the revulsive, and the horrifying as vehicles for meaning-making. Furthermore, we will explore what these works can tell us about the world we live in, and how we, as responsible citizens, navigate and respond to our shared social and cultural anxieties.
Taught by: Adam Croom
Data science and machine learning have become pervasive features of our lives, playing a role in determining what we watch and listen to, how we deliberate, who our friends are, and in many ways, how we think. This seminar aims to empower you to understand these technologies and reason about them using the tools of moral and political philosophy. The first two thirds of the course will be a practical overview: we will get in the lab and start building machine learning models using the computer language Python. No programming ability or mathematical background will be required, but fluency with computers and technology will be extremely helpful. The last third of the course will involve reading theoretical material about data ethics, machine learning ethics, and AI ethics. The course will culminate in a project that will involve creating a machine learning model and data analysis, writing up a description of the model, assessing moral and political implications of models of this kind, and presenting the results in a brief presentation.
Taught by: Sholeh Quinn
In this seminar, students will learn how to produce academic research questions related to the study of Sufism, that rich aspect of Islamic mysticism that focuses on the inner meanings of sacred writ. They will develop strategies for critical reading and thinking, improve their skills in academic research and writing, and develop their ability to orally present their research findings. In order to accomplish these goals, students will read, analyze, and research a number of Sufi mystical texts in both prose and poetry formats. They will also analyze visual sources, including architecture and calligraphy, and listen to and view Sufi musical performances.
Taught by: Antoinette Stone
In this course you will learn the physical details of recent advancements in modern physics, and their impacts on medicine, biology, and public health policy. You will also learn about the fundamental physics mechanisms underlying these breakthroughs, ways in which to quantify and analyze those mechanisms, and techniques and approaches for synthesizing these details to make meaningful quantitative predictions. These new perspectives will encourage you to ask important questions and will help you develop research questions that are important to your career and academic goals. To accomplish this you will read assigned basic physics and science literature from medical physics, biomedical and health journals, and other sources as appropriate, all of which will directly demonstrate the applications of these science advancements to modern medicine. In particular you will explore the new treatment protocols and diagnostic procedures that have resulted from these advancements. You will watch animations and simulations of the applications of important medical physics and biomedical advancements and their impacts in diagnoses and imaging, and longevity of the population. Summarizing through composition, and oral presentations, you will develop and improve your ability for research, scholarly writing, and critical thinking and you will enhance your ability to identify the interdisciplinary nature of science, technology, and applications to modern medicine in particular and modern life in general.
Taught by: Toby Napoletano
It is often assumed that our society is broadly meritocratic--the smartest, most talented, and most hardworking are the ones who are the most successful. It is often assumed, further, that this meritocratic arrangement is a good thing. But are these assumptions true? How well do our economic and educational systems select for merit? What is merit in the first place, and would a true meritocracy even be a good thing? This seminar aims to critically examine these questions, confronting philosophical questions concerning the nature and value of merit, in additional to empirical questions concerning our economic and educational institutions. We will look critically as a group at the meritocratic policies that have directly affected our own lives, and to the extent that luck or structural systems interact with these meritocratic principles. This may involve looking at policy documents for places of work, schools, or other extra-curricular activities we have had involvement in, as well as procedures for determining local positions of political power.
Taught by: Grant Nebel
Every society has its own culture, and a conversation about that culture, from the theater of the ancient Greeks to the Bible of medieval Europe to the movies of 20th-century America to the videogames of here and now. "Mythologies" will cover this range of cultural artifacts, and how each one creates a set of values and conversation about them. The Socratic demand “know thyself” can be most easily experienced through knowing what one likes and dislikes, so this seminar will lead students to articulate their thoughts and feelings about their own culture, and to lead the conversation about its values.
Taught by: James Bernard
The primary objectives are to learn how to formulate questions about energy production and consumption scenarios, how to use simple physics and existing data sources to develop models to answer those questions, how to think and write clearly and logically about energy (or anything else), and how to work cooperatively to achieve important goals. To achieve these, you will read about energy production and consumption and design questions regarding future energy scenarios; work in small teams to develop simple quantitative models to answer those questions and write short reports on the basis, logic, and results of each model; form teams that represent competing interests and debate future energy scenarios; collaborate with the entire class to write a document that uses the results of the models and the debate to assess various scenarios and recommend a plan of action.
Taught by: Dr. Jason Emery
Humans often live with the assumption that our experiences, attitudes, and behaviors are the result of very explicit conscious thought processes. There is now a vast literature across a variety of fields that suggests much of our understanding of the world is the result of implicit unconscious processes that are outside of our explicit control or awareness. In-class discussions will center around exploring ways in which unconscious thought processes can help foster a deeper appreciation of topics such as art and politics (among others). Weekly readings, as well as multimedia and other in-class demonstrations, will serve to reinforce topics of discussion. Students will complete a research paper over the course of the semester in which they will perform independent research on a topic of interest that can be viewed through the lense of research in implicit thought processes. The course will conclude with an oral presentation to the class detailing the contents of their research paper.
Taught by: Nathan Monroe
Political reform is an important and many times necessary approach to solving inefficiencies of government. However, the consequences of such reforms are not always straight forward. Reforms sometimes fail to meet their objectives and often manifest unintended consequences that can be worse than the original problem the reform was intended to solve. This class is designed to help students engage in understanding political reform from a systematic, analytical evaluation of political reforms.
Taught by: Catherine Koehler
Reading and writing have played a central role in how incarceration is conceptualized, legitimated, and experienced. In this course, we will examine how literacy has figured in historical and contemporary debates about the nature of crime and the purpose of punishment, while considering prisoners' diverse literacy practices over time and across carceral spaces. With a focus on institutional genres ranging from prison memoirs to prison ledger art to prison newspapers, we will explore how prisoners have appealed to literacy and toward what ends. Using primary source materials housed in the UC Merced Library Special Collections and other regional archives, we will explore literacy within local "assembly centers" where Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated in Merced and the greater Central Valley during World War II. We will also consider local prison education programs, with opportunity to engage in prison literacy work.
Taught by: Thomas Hansford
This Spark Seminar will investigate how the American public understands the U.S. Constitution, both in terms of direct content and as how it has been interpreted and applied by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Taught by: Eileen Camfield
While stated as a fundamental objective in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, happiness remains elusive for many people. This course will examine the interplay between private and public happiness by looking briefly at the history and definitions of our modern concept of happiness, examining recent work in fields ranging from psychology to economics, observing current social trends, and engaging with film and literature. Simultaneous to this reading, students will document various aspects of their own happiness. Through this study, we will explore ways to maximize happiness – through self-knowledge, positive emotions, community, meaningful work, wellness, play, and public life. Students will reflect on and extrapolate from this material to design a specific “happiness plan” for their own lives.
Taught by: Abbas Ghassemi
This course introduces the key concepts of renewable energy technologies focusing on wind, solar, bio-based fuels and geothermal resources. The focus will be on technology, the system and its design, as well as conversion and storage devices for renewable energy sources. This course will assess both current and potential future energy systems. It will cover the quality, availability, use, innovation, extraction and conversion of resources, emphasizing meeting regional and global energy needs for the 21st century in a sustainable manner. The overall educational objective is to demonstrate multi-disciplinary, strategic thinking in a sustainable developmental context considering diverse constraints. You will learn how to conduct research, interact with one another as a team, ask questions, and identify/communicate strategies. Additionally, you will develop a team based quantitative framework to aid in the evaluation and analysis of energy technology systems in the contexts of engineering, political, social, economic, and environmental goals.
Taught by: Matthew Snyder
Skateboarding has grown into a global cultural phenomenon in the decades since 1950s-era California surfers removed the handlebars from fruit-crate scooters to simulate the action of riding waves on concrete and asphalt. This course examines and interrogates the now-global phenomenon of modern skateboarding through multiple modes of academic disciplinary focus. At once a mode of transportation, a sport, an artform, a lifestyle, a creed, and both a socially acceptable and unacceptable (or even illegal) activity depending on where it takes place, skateboarding nevertheless cannot comfortably be described as any of these things in isolation; it defies easy categorization and explanation. Skateboarding sits at the nexus of several fields of intellectual inquiry -- among them applied mathematics, architecture, art, business, cultural studies, economics, gender studies, materials science, mechanical engineering, medicine, physics, psychology, public administration, public health, sociology, sports science, and urban planning -- and therefore provides a rich field for students in STEAM orientations (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) to study. Students will practice university-level academic research keyed to their own specific disciplinary interests while examining the same general topic from multiple, varied perspectives and angles of focus.
Taught by: Pamelyn Gingold
This course will explore the array of social movements that flourished during the 1960s and early 1970s, ranging from Civil Rights and Black Power to the struggles of farmworkers and American Indians; from the anti-Vietnam War movement to the environmental movement; from Women's Liberation to the early gay rights movement and many others. These movements brought about transformative change in many areas of American society and set the stage for so many of the issues confronting us today. Music played a crucial role throughout the 1960s, and the course will feature a specially curated selection of songs and videos to bring the era to life.
Taught by: Ignacio López-Calvo
This course will focus on the representations of violence in film from and about Spain. We will consider the following types of violence: 1) war, including but not limited to the Spanish Civil War; 2) torture and other state-sanctioned violence; 3) children and violence; 4) gender violence; 5) terrorism; 6) violence as spectacle; and civilization as violence. Another primary objective of the course is to introduce students to major directors in the history of Spanish film.
Taught by: Tommy Tran
Spirituality continues to remain a key part for human self-expression. Our current day and age of digital technology and consumer culture have not diminished but rather enabled new ways for people of different faiths to reinterpret spiritual meaning. This course draws from the Hindu concept of darśan and the Sufi concept of baraka – both terms referring to one’s experience with a spiritual presence – in understanding how people use the arts to express the human desire for meaningful connection with the universe. Students will engage on a virtual world tour of multiple spiritual forms and philosophies in everyday life from the elaborate altar goods of Latin-American botánica shops right here in the western United States, to mystical graffiti representing local saints in urban Senegal, and to contemporary shamanism in hyper-digitized South Korea. This course will also introduce a variety of concepts in folklore and religious studies, philosophies of aesthetics, and is thus intended to introduce students to interdisciplinary methods including in ethnographic and historical research of material culture, museum studies, and religion. A key project in this course is to collect, document, and analyze the spiritual practices and folklore of friends, neighbors, family, and community members.
Taught by: Mariana Abuan
In this course, we will explore humor as a topic of academic inquiry by asking questions like, when is a joke not funny? Who does this joke negatively impact? What beliefs, stereotypes, or practices does a joke perpetuate or aggravate? By examining jokes and comedic performances through critical lenses and contexts, we will learn how to generate research questions about the ethical, racial, cultural, and political implications of certain types of jokes and humor today. We will learn how to rhetorically analyze written and performed comedic pieces, understand and interpret written and visual texts, select and incorporate appropriate information into our own research, prepare and write successful academic papers, and present information orally. By delving into the origins, histories, and contexts of jokes we will not only develop a deeper appreciation for this form of entertainment but also try to determine what kind of humor should be preserved and what kind should be abandoned.