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A Common Experience for All Undergraduates

Sparks Seminars Fall 2021

Spark Seminars Fall 2021

Students will be able to enroll in one of these seminars to fulfill the SPARK General Education Requirement. *For first year students beginning Spring 2021 or Fall 2021. (Updated 07/01/2021)

Archaeology in Popular Culture

Taught by: Holley Moyes, Anthropology and Heritage Studies

Course Description: This course in the field of archaeology interfaces with science, history, and popular culture. The goal is to encourage critical thinking and teach students 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. Students 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 the students a proprietary sense so that they will take a proactive stance in the stewardship of the faint, fragile and irreplaceable archaeological record.

The Art of Attention 

Taught by: Susan Varnot, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

Black Identities

Taught by: Whitney Pirtle, Sociology 

What does it mean to be Black? Who, exactly, identifies as Black? Why does being Black mean a lot to one person, but very little to another? Racial identities are an integral part of our self-concept, but are shaped within societal understandings of race, identity, and inequality. In places like the United States, our racial identities become a primary social category for us, shaping how we see and act in the world. This spark seminar will provide an interdisciplinary approach, reading from psychology, sociology, history, and black studies, to understand and explore Black racial identities in the United States and around the world; delving into the diversity and beauty of blackness. By the end of the course we will have gained a more complete understanding of the leading questions, with each student conducting their own exploratory creative research project related to “what does Blackness really mean?”

The Border of Chicanx Texts

Taught by: Alicia Contreras, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

The Built Environment

Taught by: Matthew Nye, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

Cannabis, Culture, & Health

Taught by: Rudy M. Ortiz, Molecular Cell Biology 

Over 20 states now legally permit the use of cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes. While cannabis use was stigmatized for decades in many cultures, it was used in very early cultures around the world for these same purposes. However, the recent advent of expanded research on the medicinal use of cannabis has changed its perception among many cultures and society. We will examine and discuss the early history of recreational and medicinal cannabis use, its perception among different cultures including its depiction in media, its medicinal use, and integrate how these areas have been integrated to help shape our current views around its use.

Central Valley Stories (This section is being changed to Dungeons & Dragons Skills 4IRL - see below for course description and teacher)

Taught by: Dawn Trook, Merritt Writing Program 

Becoming acquainted with the diverse communities in the Central Valley can help develop an appreciation of the rich history of the area and an understanding of the differences within the broader communities. Likewise, helping others tell their stories can create a sense of empowerment in a community. This seminar will help students engage Central Valley residents in telling their stories. Students will work in collaboration to choose a community and interview community members. Then, students will write research journals, develop character sketches, and create a creative response to what they learned about the community members they interviewed.

Comic Art

Taught by: Karl Ryavec, Anthropology and Heritage Studies 

This seminar examines American Comic Art in Newspaper Strips and Comic Books over the course of the twentieth century. The focus will be on the artistic techniques and styles developed by key artists to depict and comment upon social issues in American society through different genre such as Superhero, and Comedy. Short weekly essays will be required interpreting how Comic Art relates to its historical and social contexts, with a focus on the so-called Golden, Silver, and Bronze Age periods, and their divergent Underground Comic movements. Class discussions will revolve around the weekly readings. The main goal of the seminar is to introduce first year students to the importance attached to discussion and writing in academia, and to help students develop and improve their own writing styles through feedback on the weekly essays, and related literature searches, and citation methods. These efforts will see fruition in a final research paper on a specific topic of interest to each student.

Community Mapping

Taught by: Mary Soltis, Anthropology and Heritage Studies 

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.

Criminality and the Detective

Taught by: Ryan Page, English

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."

Disease, Medicine, and Stories

Taught by: John Hundley, Merritt Writing Program 

From a variety of perspectives, narrative is the means by which both physicians and patients understand disease. In this course, you will research, read, and compose narratives concerning illness from both clinical and personal standpoints. In doing so, you will consider historical views, such as John Snow’s discoveries in London’s 1854 cholera outbreak, contemporary social perspectives, such as the current opioid crisis, as well as non-western understandings of illness and curing from Hmong, Miwok, and Mayan cultures. Additionally, you will conduct research using library database resources as well as websites such as the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Class work also includes in-class assignments, quizzes, and two oral presentations. By examining the topic of disease through a narrative lens, you will come to a broader and more carefully considered understanding of the role of disease in life and society.

Do Africans Speak Spanish?

Taught by: Cristian Ricci, Literature 

You know that Spanish is spoken in the Americas and Spain. However, do you know that at least 4 million Africans speak, read and write in Spanish in Africa today? Do you know that Spanish is the official language of an African country (Equatorial Guinea) and that in another country of Africa, Morocco, a person can complete their entire education in Spanish, from kindergarten to college? In this seminar, we will explore this understudied phenomenon through novels and films. This seminar will provide a panoramic view of historical, literary and artistic expressions from Afro-Hispanic authors and artists. This seminar will emphasize critical race theory, postcolonialism, postmodernity, subalternity, cultural difference, and globalization. Course will be taught in English.

Dungeons & Dragons Skills 4IRL

Taught by: John Bultena, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

The Dynamic Aesthetic

Taught by: Vanesha Pravin, Merritt Writing Program 

How do you take an idea from conception to live performance? How can sensation inspire the genesis of a creative work? How does this work evolve during the incubation stage? In this course, we will investigate the dynamic aesthetic experience by examining a wide range of sources (plays, poems, interviews, live performances, performance art, short films, plastic arts, video archives, diaries, and articles) in order to both produce original creative material (micro-plays and poems), and to subsequently perform these works. There will be a dual focus on theater and poetry, with an emphasis on creative inquiry as praxis. We will also examine various methods of synthesizing research into a creative work. During the semester, we will draw inspiration from primary and secondary sources as well as conduct field research to create original work. In addition, since both playwriting and poetry are forms of oral art, we will explore oral interpretation and phonology to sensitize you to the textures of human language that are more pronounced in the human voice than in the written word.

The Economics of Globalization

Taught by: Jesus Sandoval-Hernandez, Economics and Business Management  

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.”

Economics of Immigration

Taught By: Rowena Gray, Economics and Business Management 

In this course you will learn about the impact that immigrants have on labor markets and communities and will learn how to apply this knowledge to generate empirical research questions related to immigration topics. Along the way you will learn to design an empirical research project, collect and work with large datasets obtained from a variety of public data sources, implement a research design and write an academic-style research paper. We will explore the current scientific literature on the impact of immigration on local economies and communities within the context of current public debate surrounding the topic.

Economics of Innovation

Taught by: Justin Hicks, Economics and Business Management 

Students 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.

Engineering Inspired by Nature

Taught by: Sachin Goyal, Mechanical Engineering

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.

Exploring Leadership

Taught by: Charles Nies, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs

This seminar will introduce students to theories and models of leadership. Through a review of leadership literature, an interview with a community leader, and reflection on how theory and lessons learned frame the students' understanding of their personal capacity for leadership. Additionally, the link between community engagement and leadership will be explored as students volunteer in the community and develop a proposal for a community-based project. Finally, students will use various disciplinary lenses to look at contemporary issues that shape and impact the ability to effectively lead and to create positive social change.

Film and American Culture

Taught by: Justin Gautreau, Merritt Writing Program 

This course explores the phenomenon of popular film in the United States. Rather than viewing movies as mindless entertainment, the course approaches cinema as one of the most powerful arbiters of mass culture in U.S. history, shaping perceptions of gender, race, class, and sexuality for nearly a century. By learning to identify the "invisible" elements of the classical Hollywood style, you will study American film's historical tendency to naturalize structures of power within its narratives. At the same time, however, the course will encourage you to recognize the way Hollywood films can sometimes challenge dominant ideology. To this end, you will practice reading and writing about popular film (and thus popular culture more broadly) against the grain while also examining the significance of its historical context. You will leave the course with a more sophisticated awareness of not only your own media-saturated landscape but also its role in shaping your identity.

Flesh & Bone: Forensic Science

Taught by: Christina Torres-Rouff, Anthropology and Heritage Studies

This course is an introduction to the broad and varied fields in the forensic sciences with an emphasis on forensic anthropology – the application of the theory and methods of biological anthropology to the legal setting. Students will be introduced to human osteology, the techniques and underlying theory used by anthropologists to recover skeletal remains, reconstruct a biological profile from the skeleton, interpret skeletal trauma, and assist in the identification process as well as developing an introductory understanding of the forensic setting. We will highlight the integration of this osteological evidence with other forensic disciplines related to human identification and death investigation, including crime scene investigation, forensic pathology, odontology, entomology and other lab-based forensic science fields.

Horror Literature

Taught by: Jordan Dakin, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

Intersectionality

Taught by: Iris Ruiz, Merritt Writing Program 

This course will ask students to look at how a particular social concern in the Central Valley can be better understood through an intersectional analysis. Intersectionality is one of the most useful contributions of third wave feminist theory; however, in the University, its potential application is still limited. Furthermore, intersectionality is a complex tool that requires skill and training to use. While intersectionality wields the power to help make feminism the inclusive framework it purports to be, and is a powerful paradigm that can be leveraged in multiple fields studying and seeking to change cultures and societies, it is still not widely used beyond feminist circles. This course will further develop an intersectional approach to knowledge and research and promote student ability to apply an intersectional praxis toward research that will address the limitations of singular foci research studies. Furthermore, this course will prompt students to learn to apply a multidisciplinary, multidimensional, and multifaceted intersectional approach to local social problems in the Central Valley as intersectional theory is recognized as a viable theory for understanding multiple sources of social influence, oppression, and experience.

Life & Death in the Old West

Taught by: David Torres-Rouff, History Critical Race and Ethnic Studies

Life & Death in the Old West engages critically in one of the most dynamic and elusive periods in the history of the United States. The course covers (roughly) a seventy-five year period between 1824 and 1900. Out West, “big” national events including the Mexican American War, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Industrial Revolution intersected with urgent local concerns, particularly Indian relations, establishing law and order, community growth, and social relations. Our key questions will turn on issues of migration and conquest, identity formations (especially gender and race), violence, community, politics, and work. We will read many primary sources and a few longer academic essays and books. As we read, we will (like many Old Western residents) remain vigilant and suspicious of their content, ask questions about their purpose, and consider the politics of memory. These questions allow us to confront the Old West critically–as it was for those who lived in it and as it is in our popular imagination. We will also have fun, thinking about making new communities, playing old west games, and learning about the ways that music, clothing, and theatre shaped communities. This course is structured as a seminar. This means that, rather than a series of lectures, the course is largely discussion based. We will read primary sources, and scholarly books, and watch several films critically, all of which we will process together in weekly seminars. Students will also generate an original research topic and conduct research in digital newspaper collections as they write a paper and develop a presentation.

Life Hack: Adulting Today

Taught by: Yogita R. Maharaj, Merritt Writing Program 

What do understanding debt, renting/buying property, cooking vs. eating out, getting insurance, stress management, conflict resolution, and forming healthy relationships all have in common? These are all life skills that are not explicitly taught in K-12 education, and yet are essential to living a fulfilling and productive life. The current school system does not require classes where students learn how to navigate real world challenges like paying taxes or self-care. We often enter college (and unfortunately sometimes remain indefinitely) unprepared to take care of ourselves. Many healthy habits like conflict resolution and budgeting are necessary skills that can be hard to achieve without proper knowledge or guidance. In order to bridge the gap between college and adulthood, this course will explore the complex, but manageable road to successful "adulting." This course will have students engage in discussions through shared scholarly readings, guest speakers/facilitators, and lectures. Students will actively practice adulting concepts in and outside of class, reflecting on their experiences and progress in a weekly journal. Additionally, a midterm presentation and final multimedia portfolio will examine students' mastery of key skills and concepts.

The Machine Learning Age

Taught by: Adam M. Croom, Cognitive and Information Sciences 

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.

Mythologies

Taught by: Grant Nebel, Applied Mathematics 

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.

On Meritocracy

Taught by: Toby Napolitano, Cognitive and Information Sciences

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.

Our Energy Future

Taught by: James Bernard, Materials Science 

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.

Prison Literacy

Taught by: Catherine Koehler, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

The Promise of America

Taught by: Rebeca Antoine, Merritt Writing Program 

In this class, you will examine a variety of texts (fiction, nonfiction, film) that present narratives of the "American Dream" representing native and immigrant experiences. We will discuss how race, class, gender, and ethnicity intersect, inform, and complicate the notion of social mobility that rests at the heart of the “American Dream." This course will strengthen your critical skills through analyzing text as well as your creativity as you construct your own “American Dream” narrative.

Robots, Androids, and Cyborgs

Taught by: Mariana Abuan

Robots, androids, cyborgs, and A.I. are an increasing part of life in the 21st century and the technology behind them is evolving rapidly. It is an exciting and essential time to not only understand how it affects our lives today but also what could be in our future. In this course we will engage in discussions about past, fictional, and emerging robotic and related technologies along with the ethical, economic, political, and social considerations they come with. We will ask questions like, will robots eventually replace us all? Should someone with prosthetic legs be allowed to compete in the Olympics? Could the development of androids result in a repeat of slavery?

Seeing is Disbelieving

Taught by: ShiPu Wang, Global Arts, Media and Writing Studies 

How do we navigate through a global culture dominated by imagery and the Instagram-age myth of “I am seen, so I exist”? What is the long history of the notion of “seeing is believing” and how has it been challenged by the emergence of new technologies, such as visual manipulation software and “deepfake” videos? In this seminar, we explore historical and contemporary examples of visual representation from around the world through reading, discussion, writing and creative assignments. Our topics include, among others: the science of visual perception; tricks and tropes of visual storytelling in different cultures; visual propaganda in times of sociopolitical change and turmoil; the history of gendered imagery; anime and kawaii in the shadows of atomic annihilation; contested verisimilitude in photography and digital technology; and the proliferation of global American consumerism via the power of visual media. The main objective of this seminar is to help students develop their visual literacy, analytical skills, and creativity. Students will thus apply their knowledge and create multimedia projects, which will be showcased on campus, that present critical commentary on our contemporary visual culture based on this seminar’s topics.

Selfies of the Divine

Taught by: Tommy Tran, History Critical Race and Ethnic Studies 

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.

Skateboarding (Sub)Culture(s)

Taught by: Matthew Snyder, Merritt Writing Program 

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.

Social Movement of the 60’s

Taught by: Pamelyn Gingold, Merritt Writing Studies 

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.

Theatre and Community

Taught by: Adam Bryx, English

In this seminar, you will consider the ways in which theatrical performance can make a difference to various communities, and you will generate research questions related to this topic. These research questions might lead you to study performances across the world, or right here in Merced. You will read, view, and interpret various literary dramatic texts (plays), and will also read and discuss accounts of various ways in which performance has been applied around the world to address issues of inequality, power, and social justice. You will use writing as a tool for learning, expand your abilities to write research and write successful academic papers, and improve your oral delivery skills.

Trauma & Resilience

Taught by: Elizabeth Cunningham, Merritt Writing Program 

This course will trace the evolution of trauma theory through literary representations of individual and collective trauma. In this course, you will learn how to identify and complicate historical models of trauma theory, apply these models in response to literary texts, and strengthen collaborative learning and presentation skills. To those ends, you will read and analyze fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and theory, draft and revise original essays, and collect and reflect on evidence relating to contemporary sociocultural issues. We will examine a multiplicity of contexts, likely involving World Wars I and II (including Holocaust literature), Caribbean literature, African-American history, 9/11, and others. Rather than focusing singularly on trauma, we will also discuss conceptions of resilience as they relate to literary production and coping.

Understanding Investments

Taught by: Jason Lee, Economics and Business Management 

This course is designed to provide students with an introduction to the various types of financial assets that are traded, including bonds, stocks and derivatives (options and futures markets). Students will be introduced to the different investment choices available, how the stock market works, how to evaluate stocks, and how to build and manage a well balanced portfolio. Through the management of a simulated investment portfolio, students will get hands on experience in investing and trading using both fundamental and technical analysis.

Utopia: The (Im)possible Dream

Taught by: Paula DeBoard, Merritt Writing Program 

Utopia, from Latin, is an imagined place of ideal perfection. Literally, it’s also “no place” or “nowhere.” Since the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, the idea of a perfect world—one that rights the wrongs of existing societies and governments—has populated fiction and film. What can we learn from these ideals of a perfect world, and the dystopian visions of those ideals gone wrong? And how can we use these ideas to begin to address the needs of our own communities?

What is a Research University?

Taught by: Hrant Hratchian, Chemistry and Biochemistry 

What is a "Research University"? Former UC President Clark Kerr once wrote that the American research university is "... a series of individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance about parking." In a way that’s true, but there must be more to it! This Spark seminar will explore the role research universities have played in education, scholarship, and service. The course will specifically study UC Merced's unique and young history as the first new American research university of the 21st century and aim to understand what that moniker truly means. What are its promises? What are its responsibilities? Students will engage in a discourse exploring these questions as a research problem seeking to propose how UC Merced should develop so as to distinguish the 21st century research university from its 20th century ancestor. What should we expect of UC Merced in the next decade and what will it take to get there?

Witches and Witch Hunts

Taught by: Michelle Toconis, Merritt Writing Program 

From the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), Monty Python's Holy Grail, to a diverse range of folktales, the witch is still a significant, dominant cultural figure in literature, film, and television. This course aims to survey the impact of the witch hunts on literature, popular culture, and law making, as well as to examine how early to modern witch-hunts intersect with attitudes about gender, religion, and community. In turn, the social significance of witches will shift from preconceived ideas that tend to oversimply the basis for witch-hunts to a more concrete understanding of the impact that long standing misnomers can have on a group of people; hence, offering alternative ways to think about the historical, as well as present day, treatment and persecution of a given population. In this course, students will learn how: to view the witch as a dominant controversial cultural figure in literature, film, and television, from surveying the impact of the witch hunts on literature, popular culture, and law making; examine how early to modern witch-hunts intersect with attitudes about gender, religion, and community; draw parallels between early and modern witch hunts to generate real-world research questions, identify current problems, and formulate tentative solutions; students will practice the use of multiple interdisciplinary analytical tools to identify, interpret, and evaluate various texts and 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.