It All Starts Here

Commonly referred to as “FSEMs,” First-Year Seminars are courses with only 12-16 students that help introduce you to college coursework and college life. Each FSEM is designed around a thought-provoking topic that will serve as a springboard for honing your critical thinking and communication skills. FSEMs will also help you acclimate to our academic values and build a network of relationships in and out of the classroom.

Your FSEM professor will serve as your academic adviser for at least your first year. You will be introduced to your FSEM professor in June and meet again during Orientation, when your FSEM course begins. Your advising relationship will continue to develop throughout the semester. Each FSEM will also include a First-Year Mentor, a current student who will support you during your first semester and beyond. 

First-Year Seminars are the only courses required of all HWS students, and every incoming first-year student is required to take one during their fall semester. 

see students' projects from the first-year seminar symposium

Fall 2024 First-Year Seminar Offerings

¡Ay mija!: Childhood and Identity in Hispanic Literature and Culture
professor of spanish and hispanic studies may farnsworth

How do we begin to understand the complicated transition time between childhood to adulthood in diverse contexts? How do we honor our childhood selves while coming to terms with the adults we become? What roles do our cultural, linguistic, and social backgrounds play in the memories we choose to share and the ways in which we share them? "¡Ay mija!" explores the theme of childhood in Latin America and Spain through fictional and non-fictional storytelling. Course materials include contemporary testimonial literature, poetry, novels, and film. Students will practice critical thinking through writing and active discussions. Additionally, students will have an opportunity to work with youth in the Geneva community as educational volunteers.

20 questions
associate professor of english and creative writing rob carson

Are we alone in the universe? Is democracy the best form of government? Where does gender come from? Does social media make us anti-social? Are human rights universal? Can Artificial Intelligence make real artworks? In this seminar we will contemplate twenty fascinating questions drawn from disciplines across the liberal arts, considering the various alternatives on offer and debating their respective merits. Our main purpose in this class is to offer you an introduction to the broad range of subjects that we study in the HWS curriculum.

"20 Questions" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

archaelogical mysteries 
Associate Professor of classics leah himmelhoch 

Did aliens really visit the Egyptians or early Americas? Could ancient peoples possibly build sophisticated structures like pyramids, or calculate the complex math necessary for their astronomical projects, without a more advanced civilization’s aid? Did Atlantis really exist? Who really discovered the Americas? Does the Bible include evidence of giants or UFO’s? Has Noah’s Ark really been found? How could anyone verify whether the Piltdown Man was a hoax — doesn’t science itself dictate that there are no definite answers? How can you tell when an archaeological or scientific discovery is fraudulent? Are “alternative” archaeologists really plucky, unappreciated champions of a truth that mainstream science wants to conceal? Are academic archaeologists closed-minded, unimaginative, agents of the status quo, intent upon keeping revelatory information away from the public? This course will review famous mysteries in ‘Pseudo-Archaeology’ then explain how to differentiate fantastical claims from scientifically supportable conclusions. We will also discuss why people generate hoaxes or cling to unsustainable narratives, and why stopping misinformation about the past matters. Finally, we will investigate some genuine, properly-handled archaeological mysteries in order to: 1) practice distinguishing supported claims from fiction (and maybe offer some responsible explanations of our own); 2) demonstrate that the rigorous application of scientific method does not stifle excitement or mystery; and, 3) marvel at the ingenuity of our distant ancestors.  

belief, skepticism, and paranormality
professor of economics joyce jacobsen 

How do we construct belief and how do we test the beliefs of ourselves and others? There is a body of knowledge about what it means to be skeptical and what kinds of tools we can use to evaluate beliefs. We as humans are also prone to particular errors in constructing belief that we can analyze objectively. We consider the principles and techniques of skepticism and apply them to a range of phenomena and beliefs to evaluate their likelihood. Subjects studied include a range of proposed paranormal and supernatural phenomena, as well as conspiracy theories, cults, witch hunts, beliefs about afterlife and the spirit world, and how to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. These topics seem particularly relevant given our location in the “burned-over district” and the founding of William Smith College by a freethinker and spiritualist.  

biophysics of human body motion
associate professor of physics ileana dumitriu

What do simple physics and biology reveal about human body motion that might be interesting or even useful? Velocity, force, energy, momentum, center of gravity, and balance are all aspects of human motions such as walking down stairs, performing a yoga pose, playing the violin, kicking a soccer ball, dancing, shoveling snow, etc. How do those concepts apply to the muscles, tendons, and bones to enable human movement? The analysis of human motion facilitates a large number of applications including smart-human computer interfaces, special effects in movies, orthopedic surgery, physical therapy, performing arts, and athletic performance. A variety of human movements will be observed and discussed.  Various models for human motion will be studied, requiring high school algebra and trigonometry. Class meetings will use a blend of  discussions, labs, and lectures to help students understand and apply basic biophysical concepts to a variety of human motions.  There's no substitute for feeling in one's own body the way physical principles apply!

bird obsessions: Beauty of the beast
professor of biology mark deutschlander

We are a nation obsessed with birds. “Birding” is among the top hobbies in our country and others. Birders spend their money on “birding” equipment, seed and feeders, or vacations to catch a glimpse of novel or rare species. Scientists continually create new technologies to connect us, often through our smartphones, to the birds in our local environments. Why are we so obsessed with birds? Is it their ability to fly, their almost implausible migrations, their vibrant colors or melodious songs, their curious personalities? What do birds represent to us? In some cultures, birds are symbols of peace, power, trickery, gluttony, or intelligence. Do the lives of birds really express these characteristics? Can birds represent hope for spring or for the future? Are birds a key to providing greater social awareness of our environment? In this course, we’ll examine the lives of birds and the people who are obsessed with them from a variety of perspectives. You learn about the latest technologies to identify birds and track their migrations, and we will explore the Finger Lakes region and the birds that share our local habitats.

class matters 
professor of sociology renee monson

I will use the concept of class as the organizing framework or prism through which we will explore social structure, culture, social institutions, and social inequality. My intent is to ensure that from here on out, whenever you want to get to know a new place or a new set of people, you will ask: "What is the class structure here, and how has it changed in the last thirty years? How does class shape the culture and the social rules that govern behavior here? How does class affect people's everyday lives here- their friendships, their work, their family life? How does class shape what is possible for the future of this place?”

earth vs. humans 
associate professor of geoscience david kendrick

Humans are part of the Earth’s system of interlocking feedbacks. But sometimes it seems like Earth is out to get us – earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, climate change,  environmental collapse and more have affected our societies from the origin of Homo sapiens. In some cases, entire cultures have been destabilized and disappeared to be forgotten. In other cases, localized events become legends a thousand or more years old. How have these events shaped human culture? What kinds of disasters can we anticipate and plan for? Has history taught us prudence? What does how we respond in the moment and in thinking about the future tell us about ourselves?

"Earth Vs. Humans" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

Encountering Difference
Associate Professor of Religious Studies Sal Kafrawi

Encounters happen every day. We encounter people of different civilizations, nations, races, faith, class, sexes, and genders at schools, workplaces, supermarkets, public squares, and other venues. What do we expect when we meet other people? How do we respond when we encounter difference? What constitutes difference? Why do we fear difference? Why do people stereotype? Could the fear of the other necessitate one to control the narrative, the people, or their resources? Or, could encounter with the other become a life-changing experience that affirms oneself and the other simultaneously? What needs to be done for us to have a meaningful encounter with the other? This seminar will particularly explore on two kinds of encountering difference: Christian Spaniards’ encounters with Native Americans in early Americas, contemporary encounters between White Americans and American people of color including African-Americans and Arab-Americans, and interfaith encounters between Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Ethical Debates in Medicine
Professor of Religious Studies Etin Anwar

How do we respond ethically to the problems posed by medical practices and policies? What ethical principles would we use? Should medical decisions consider the patient’s cultural and religious backgrounds? How do different cultures treat health and illness? This course is an interdisciplinary approach to the moral, philosophical, social, religious, and legal dimensions of the theories, policies, and practices in issues regarding the beginning, the maintenance, and the end of human life. We will examine a few ethical theories ranging from Virtue, Utilitarian, deontological, religious to feminist Ethics to approach the topics in question. We will particularly discuss the ethical dilemma of the way in which medical technology offers choices to determine a new life, enhances the maintenance of bodily perfection, and informs the decision to end life. Specific issues covered in this course will include concepts relevant to ethical theories, religion and bioethics, reproductive technology, abortion, euthanasia, organ transplant, and plastic surgery.

Exploring community: Relationships, Happiness and Service
Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning Katie Flowers  

Everyone is talking about “belonging” but what does it really mean to be a part of a community? Students will gain an understanding of the social power structures that support or inhibit community building, and how that impacts individual and collective well-being. In addition to assigned readings and class discussions, students will commit to 20 hours of service-learning (2 hours per week over the course of the semester), through which students will help cultivate community through creating connections with peers on campus and with members of the Geneva community. “Exploring Community” will lead to skill development which will help students navigate their time at HWS and build towards a ‘life of consequence.’ 

"Exploring Community" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

Face to Face: Interrogating Race in the United States and South Africa
Visiting Associate Professor of Africana Studies James McCorkle

How do we talk about race after the murder of George Floyd? In this seminar, we'll explore the parallels between South Africa and the United States, their policies of segregation and their ongoing resistant imaginations.

From Comix to Graphix: The Art of Story
Professor of Art and Architecture Lara Blanchard 

Are comics and graphic novels literature, art, both, or neither? What does Wonder Woman have to do with political history? Why render the Holocaust in a comic format? This seminar considers formats and themes of comics and graphic narratives, a thriving hybrid form, created by artists from various global cultures. The seminar is designed (and sometimes collaboratively taught) by a literature professor and an art historian and uses methods of literary and visual analysis to gain a deeper understanding of graphic storytellings. Students will read a range of works in these media, as well as theory, method, and criticism in the field. Students will produce critical analyses and, potentially, creative projects, both individually and in collaboration. This seminar helps students develop multiple skills of interpretation of narratives in a range of contexts. Readings may include Persepolis, Maus, Fun Home, and Scott Pilgrim, among others.

I know what you ate last summer  
professor of chemistry justin miller

What makes diet ice cream low in calories? (What is a calorie, anyway?) What are trans-fats, and why have they been used in food products? Is irradiation a good way to ensure food safety? And people talk about proteins, carbs, and fats all the time; what are these, really? An understanding of how society produces and uses food, and how these practices are both regulated and manipulated, can be informed by an appreciation of food chemistry. Students in this course begin by garnering a background in food-related chemistry; they then apply this knowledge to the understanding of food production and policy. Students will design and perform experiments using food, research and write about issues of food production and policy, and learn to communicate their findings.

information and misinformation: Thinking Critically about Science in a Digital Age
assistant professor of psychological science stephanie anglin 

When should we trust scientific claims? When should we not? From Covid-19 to diet to relationships to our environment, we are bombarded with claims about how to behave and live our lives. But just because "studies have shown" does not mean that something is true, and pseudoscientific, exaggerated, and inaccurate claims can be difficult to spot. How do we learn to have “healthy skepticism” about scientific claims and those who make them? This course addresses questions that are essential to evaluating and using scientific information effectively in our daily lives: What is scientific evidence? What constitutes strong vs. weak evidence? How do people gather evidence to inform their judgments and decisions, and how should they do so? How can we make sense of conflicting evidence, including evidence on polarized topics? How do we recognize and counteract bias in scientific reasoning, including our own? What role do the media and public play in the (mis)communication of science? We will tackle these and other questions by considering a range of popular, controversial, and critical topics relevant to 21st century experience using writing-instructive, critical, and reflective approaches to build skills for college and for life as informed consumers of science.

literary science fiction and fantasy
professor of english and creative writing melanie Conroy-goldman 

This course traces the development of Science Fiction (and to a lesser extent, fantasy) from the genres’ 19th Century origins through contemporary challenges by queer, POC and slipstream writers. This course will explore the cultural context for the emergence of each genre, consider what genre means, and debate definitions of science fiction and fantasy. As we move through the golden age of SF, we will pause for an extended look at one mass market text that could arguably belong to either genre, Dune. In the latter half of the semester, we will explore how newer works offer radical vantages on old questions about science, progress and the nature of reality. We will consider such questions as what it means that we as a culture seek alternatives to our present reality, how genre relates to the canon, the problem of escapism, and how imagined realities act on the world we live in.

"Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

math and metaphor
associate professor of mathematics & Computer science jennifer biermann

Science fiction authors often draw from mathematical ideas in their stories, and popular science writers use metaphor to communicate complicated mathematical topics to a general audience. In this class we will examine these two modes of story-telling through paired readings (fictional and non-fictional) with shared mathematical content.

media in our life
assistant professor of media and society iskandar zulkarnain

How does TikTok’s algorithm figure you out? Is my phone spying on me? What is “digital blackface”? Why are #OscarsSoWhite? Why do we use print media less and less? This course is designed to examine the ubiquitous role of media in our life. Focusing on the global and local contexts, this course will address two key questions:
  • How do media help shape our identity and our view of the world on an everyday basis?
  • How do we as a society simultaneously forge the social uses of media?

Guided by these two key questions, the course will explore various forms of media along with specific issues/questions around each form. Following Ott and Mack’s formulation of critical media studies, students will develop skills to view media with skeptical attitudes, humanistic approach, political assessment, and commitment to social justice. The primary goal of this course is to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticize the meanings and messages of various form of media in our life.

monsters in america
Associate Professor of History laura free 

From the Witches of Salem, to the Alien Invaders of Area 51, to the Vampires of Sunnydale, and the Walking Dead of Atlanta, Americans throughout their history have embodied their deepest cultural and social fears as horrifying, other-worldly creatures. Gender theorist Judith Halberstam argues that monsters are “meaning machines,” metaphors through which a community defines itself. In other words, what we fear can tell us much about who we are. This class examines American history by exploring the dominant monster myths of the past four centuries, using the idea of the horrific as a unique window into America’s past.

narratives of disability 
associate professor of educational studies mary kelly 

This course uses personal accounts and other narratives to introduce students to the lives of individuals with disabilities. The course has a geographic orientation beginning with narratives grounded in our local HWS and Finger Lakes communities before moving to other parts of the United States and abroad. Issues to be examined include educational access and inclusion, community participation, self-advocacy, and family perspectives and issues. The course is taught inclusively with students from the Arc Ontario College Experience Program.

New Chemistry Meets Old Art
Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer 

Art and science sometimes seem incompatible. In this seminar, we will challenge that perception. We will begin by using art projects to help understand chemical principles. Using those principles, we then will explore art history to illustrate how science helps us understand art. For example, science can help us uncover lost secrets of past artists, offer us strategies to recognize art forgeries, and advise us on the conservation of art in museums. No previous skills in science or art are needed to enjoy this seminar. Typical readings: Ball, Bright Earth; White, Prehistoric Art; Woolfson, Colour: How We See It and How We Use It; Wieseman: A Closer Look: Deceptions and Discoveries; Bomford: A Closer Look: Conservation of Paintings.

"New Chemistry Meets Old Art" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

on strike!
Associate professor of writing and rhetoric hannah dickinson

From 2021’s Striketober to 2023’s Hot Labor Summer we are experiencing a revitalization of the labor movement in the United States. Actors, nurses, baristas, autoworkers, writers, teachers, tech workers, and more are organizing for their rights and connecting labor struggles to environmental and social justice. We are also seeing how strikes move beyond the workplace—from youth climate strikes to international feminist strikes. This course asks: How have strikes been used to create social and political change at key moments in history? And how do strikes work today? We will explore these questions by analyzing how strikes are depicted in film, fiction, poetry, and song; studying the slogans and tactics of strikers throughout U.S. history and today; reading and discussing theories about why strikes work or don’t; and learning the stories of strikers—workers of color, queer, disabled, immigrant, and women workers who have been overlooked or ignored. Our analysis of strikes will not only sharpen our critical thinking skills, but also build our abilities to make change through collective action. 

our linguistic identities
Associate Professor of Russian Area Studies Christopher lemelin

Language is perhaps the most human of our activities, yet it is difficult for most of us to objectively describe what exactly language is or how it works. This course will consider the relationship between language and thought and the role of language in society, and it will question some of our commonly held beliefs about what language is. Students will develop the basic skills required to describe language analytically and will use these tools to consider how variations in basic linguistic features define a speech community’s identity. We will then investigate how language creates social communities and defines social boundaries, how it changes and adapts to a variety of social demands, including the use of conversational strategies and politeness, the development of slang, and the rejection or acceptance of standardization. Finally, we will consider how pragmatic turns and rhetorical structures in language create power relationships.

pawprints! all things dogs 
william r. kenan jr. chair and professor of gender, sexuality, and intersectional justice betty bayer 

Are dogs our oldest BFFs in history? Was it the mutual relationship between dogs and humans that shifted our own evolution? Does the tail of the dog wag our capacity for compassion and humanness? Beyond archeologists and paleogeneticists’ efforts to pin down this story of mutual development, some say a story that began roughly 23,000 years ago, dogs have their pawprints all over history, fiction, art, advertising, film, religion, television and digital media and the fields of history, psychology, economics, medicine, anthropology and canine cognition centers at major universities. Their pawprints cross worlds of adventure and discovery, tales of divination and evil as much as in worlds of violence in systems of apartheid and enslavement. Today commercials hound us to further domesticate our relations with dogs, inundating us with products, care, training, fashion, health, food, vet care and pet insurance – a multi-billion-dollar industry. Dogs are considered good (if not the best) therapists for medical and psychological needs; they are laborers in hospitals, classrooms, daycares, and hotels; they accompany people with emotional, neural diverse and physical needs; they are called on to sniff out disease, police airports, and lead rescue missions. At the heart of it all, however, dogs continue to walk beside us, showing us the way at times to take the lead, other times to chill and to play, nuzzle and bark or howl our way in this world. Dogs are in and of our world. Still, the question remains: What do we really know or understand about dogs or our relations with them? How does understanding them help us understand ourselves? This course follows the vast and sprawling pawprints across time and place, gender and race relations, to inquire into what these long standing and manifold connections may tell us about making worlds and humanity. 

pop culture: writing & analysis
associate professor of writing and rhetoric and english and creative writing geoffrey babbitt 

Pop culture is easy to know but difficult to analyze. Because we are immersed in pop culture and consume it when seeking entertainment - in the form of films, TV shows, music, art, social media, ads, etc. - we all too easily engage with pop cultural artifacts without significant critical thought. In this course, we will develop and sharpen critical thinking, analysis, research, and writing skills by focusing on pop culture, critical theory, and pop cultural artifacts.

recognizing victims and survivors
professor of sociology james sutton

Crime seems to be everywhere. It is in the news constantly and is a common source of entertainment, with the popularity of true crime books, movies, and podcasts booming due to crime's enduring mystique. Indeed, thinking about crime for many has become fun. But what about the victims? Through the adoption of a victim-centered approach to criminology, this unique seminar will transcend common sensationalisms of crime that routinely negate victims’ experiences and obscure their pain. We will examine empirical research findings on victimization patterns and trends, with a specific focus on how one’s age, race, gender, class, sexuality, and other statuses intersect with their likelihood of being victimized. We will also weigh efforts geared toward improving crime victims’ lives, such as victims’ rights movements, legislation, public health responses, and restorative justice programs. By foregrounding victims rather than those who do the victimizing, we will come to recognize that crime introduces profound harm into the lives of victims and survivors. Accordingly, engaging with these topics will be difficult at times, which is precisely the point in a society that all too often equates crime with fun. 

running down a dream
director of the center for teaching and learning ruth shields 

'Running' is a leisure activity for an estimated 47 million Americans (according to Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 2017), a competitive sport practiced worldwide in multiple forms, and one of the most ancient sports known to history. This FSEM will explore what running and holding an identity of `runner' or `not a runner' means today. How is running positioned today in American society? Other cultures? What does it mean to be a runner, a member of a running community? How does running 'look' different across gender, race, and age lines? Using Jones and McEwens' conceptual model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity and an interdisciplinary lens, we will explore running as a phenomenon, cultural practice, and physical activity: we will touch on physiological aspects of running; examine the historical context, from running as a mode of transportation and communication to the modern day use of running as recreation and fitness; examine running from cultural and gender-based perspectives; engage in kinesthetic and meta-cognitive learning by examining our own running practice or non-practice; and have opportunities to engage with Geneva running communities as runners, non-runners, and volunteers. Students will also explore their own identities as students, including that of a runner. Please note: this course has an experiential component, but it is accessible to students of all physical abilities.

"Running Down a Dream" is part of a Living/Learning Community. Learn more here.

the blue planet 
Associate Professor of geoscience david finkelstein 

Water controls life on planet Earth. Water is a universal solvent, wherever it goes, it takes along valuable chemicals, minerals, and nutrients. Water is the only substance that exists naturally on Earth in all three physical states of matter-gas (water vapor), liquid (water), and solid (ice and snow). The heat capacity of water controls our weather and climate. Water, economics, politics and wealth can be intimately tied together. When water flows, its power can be harvested. Where rains occur on a predictable basis, sustenance through farming can be achieved. Civilizations depend upon accessible drinking water. Does water control civilizations and politics? When water doesn't flow or droughts persist, civilizations can collapse. What is our relationship with water? How does global climate change alter these relationships? Students will characterize our local and global relationship with water and  climate using scholarly articles, maps, biographies, movies, music and novels. Through discussions, presentations, debates, guided journals and short essays, we will explore the bounds that water places on humanity.  

the mindful body 
professor of dance and movement studies donna davenport

This seminar is a "yoga class" that takes place in a studio setting. Sounds fun, yet continuously it will challenge creative students to connect their physical practices to social justice principles and to be brave enough to explore sensitive topics with peers and to unlearn habits of thought and action. The history and philosophy of yoga, human anatomy, social justice education, storytelling, movement as metaphor, and inter-group dialogue are a few of the subjects that comprise this course. Students will need to be ready to venture into new territory: new body, new connections, new thinking, and new understanding of the self in relation to others. The adventure will include ongoing reading, college-level writing, research, dialogues outside class, and honest evaluation of outcomes.

the theory of everything
associate professor of english and creative writing alla ivanchikova 

What is time? Why are there nation-states? What happened in the (roughly) first 195,000 years of human history? Are non-human animals sentient? Will artificial intelligence replace humans? These big questions challenge scholars, forcing them to go outside their disciplines to seek answers at the confluence of several fields. In this course, we'll engage with such big questions along with theories that attempt to synthesize various realms of knowledge to answer them. We'll discuss the deep history of the universe and its main events - the emergence of light (about 300,000 years after the Big Bang), the advent of stars and galaxies, and the birth of molecules and life. We'll also delve into the deep history of humanity: the domestication of humans by dogs (you read that correctly!), the advent of farming, the industrial revolution, and the Great Acceleration (from the 1950s onwards). Furthermore, we'll explore the future of religion, work, and artificial and natural intelligence. Students will learn that the most ambitious theories we have are truly theories of everything, aspiring to explain how the world works. 

violence in the sea of faith
Associate Professor of history sarah whitten  

During the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean sea was home to people of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These communities often fought violently for territory, converts, and wealth. This class explores the nature of religious violence in the pre-modern Mediterranean by examining the topics of Islamic expansion, the Crusades, and persecution.  In the course, we will also challenge the assumption that all interactions were violent by investigating convivencia in Spain, Egypt, and Sicily. We will read many different types of medieval texts including crusade narratives, travel writings, biography, and chronicles. Lastly we will explore how science, art history, philosophy, and archaeology help us understand the complexity of the medieval world.

what's eating you? Cooking, cuisine & Me 
Associate Professor of anthropology christopher annear

Food is both social and personal. It sustains and nourishes—drawing us toward some and away from others. Its temporary absence underscores our dependency on it. In this First-Year Seminar (FSEM), we will explore what it means to cook, read, talk, and eat food. In doing so, we will learn more about ourselves, while practicing critical thinking and writing.