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Course Ideas

Instructor: Glenn Kessler

Liberal Studies Seminars

All of the critical issues seminars proposed below will stress the following elements:

ISLS 302 - Critical Thinking

(Last offered Summer 04)

This seminar is designed to address three primary goals:

The main outcome of the seminar will be a critical approach to issues and questions that can be applied in other courses and other venues. At the end of this course you’ll have the tools and knowledge needed to carry out an extended critical investigation of any issue. You’ll also have a substantial piece of writing under you belt.

The course will focus on a central “critical issue” or question. E.g.,

Changing Minds: Why do we believe the things we do?

This question will drive all of the individual writing assignments. In this context we’ll consider mental models, multiple intelligences, propaganda and public relations, hidden assumptions, and the role and impact of the media, the identification and evaluation of arguments and statistical reasoning among other topics.


ISLS 303 Systems Thinking & Creativity

(Offered Spring 04, Fall 04)

Systems inform our understanding of the world. They provide a framework for selecting and interpreting data, add meaning to our experience, supply basic assumptions about the underlying structure and behavior of the world we perceive, and provide rules and standards for drawing inferences and conclusions. But in so doing they can also severely constrain and even distort our understanding of that world we think we know.

In this course we explore three interlocking themes that underlie our ability to deal effectively and creatively with the world: mental models, systems thinking and creativity. We first look at the ways in which “mental models” – internalized paradigms about what the world is – define the world that we know. We then look at the relationship between these mental models and different varieties of “systems thinking”; i.e., the kinds of systems and approaches we use to understand our environment. Finally, against the background of systems thinking and mental models, we consider what creativity is, how and why it can be successfully used, and – if we’re lucky -- how it can be enhanced.

The subject matter dictates that this be a truly interdisciplinary course. In addition to work in systems thinking, systems dynamics, organizational behavior, philosophy, psychology, history of science, physics and information theory we’ll use a number of novels and contemporary films as starting points for class discussion.

Topics will include the hypothesis of mental models; the definition of a system; six frames of reference for thinking about systems (classical, dynamic, cybernetic, field, evolutionary/transformational; and chaos); creative abrasion; rational vs. intuitive/ irrational thought; two kinds of creativity; the importance of “out of the box” thinking; and applied innovation.

Minds, Machines & Human Nature

(Offered Spring 2004)

This critical issues seminar offers an interdisciplinary exploration of the varied and sometimes surprising connections between mind, brain, and mechanism from a range of perspectives including philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, neurobiology and evolution. Among other topics we will examine the logical limits of computing devices, the power of algorithms or mechanical “recipes,” implications of recent work in cognitive science on the mind vs. machine dispute, the concept of consciousness, the nature v. nurture dispute (i.e., how much of what we are is “hardwired”), mechanistic v. evolutionary origins of the mental, and – the overarching theme – what is “human nature.” What does it mean to be a person?

Hamlet: Perspectives & Reflections

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a mirror.   We can use it to see and understand things about ourselves and our culture that are often difficult to appreciate directly. They’re so familiar and so obvious that we don’t often see them.    In this critical issues course we’ll view Hamlet through several different lenses: historical, psychological, scientific/systematic, and anthropological. Each lens reveals both a different understanding of the play as well as a different view of what we are as individuals and a society. In addition to the text we’ll view and discuss at least two different film versions of the play. Texts TBD

Evolution: Transforming Our World

Evolution transforms our world in many different senses. It explains, in a systematic scientific way, the diversity and complexity of the outside world. It also shows us how things inside us, things we take to be uniquely human such as thought, language, intelligence, and even culture, could be a natural extension of this outside world. Finally it points to futures in which ideas and machines could be our natural evolutionary successors. In providing these perspectives evolution radically transforms the way we think about the world. In this critical issues seminar we’ll investigate evolution both as a theory and as a metaphor. We’ll look at what it is, what it’s claimed to be and how it has changed our views about ourselves, our organizations, our society, and even change itself. Readings will be drawn from a number of different fields including evolutionary biology, philosophy, cognitive psychology, game theory, and psychology. Texts will include Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

Metaphor: Creating Our World

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” (Frederich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”)

What is a metaphor? What role does it play in the way we see the world – ourselves and others? What metaphors guide our own thinking – as a society and a culture -- about politics, crime, illness, love, and life?   What can these metaphors tell us about what we are as individuals and as a society? If one takes metaphor seriously is it possible to draw a hard line between fact and fiction, between arts and sciences, between the objective and subjective? In this critical issues seminar we’ll investigate these and related questions using a variety of media. Texts will be drawn from a spectrum of disciplines including cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy, literature, artificial intelligence and literary criticism. Texts and films TBD.

“Based On A True Story…”

A critical excursion into the intersection of film, epistemology and metaphysics. When does fact shade into fiction? Why are certain aspects of a true story fictionalized? What’s the motivation and impact of fictionalizing a story? What’s the impact of basing a film on a true story? Why does it have this impact? What’s the relation between “based on a true story” and “what really happened?”   To what degree should we believe accounts that are based on a true story? What factors govern the transformation of fact to fiction in film? We will attempt to answer these and related questions by examining a number of films “based on a true story,” researching the real story behind the films, and discussing them in the context of traditional theories of epistemology, mass media, and social change.

The Creative Mind

A biographical investigation of creativity in the arts and sciences. What’s the connection between creativity and rationality?    Is creativity in math and science essentially different from creativity in the arts? What are the characteristics of creative genius? Is there a way to hone and strengthen our own creative powers? Specific case studies may include Einstein, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Descartes, Newton, Cavendish, Turing, Edison and others.

Propaganda & Deception

This critical issues course offers a practical examination of what propaganda is and why it works. It’s relation to lying, deception, bias in the media, and its appropriate role in a democratic society are considered against the background of several contemporary issues. Text wills include Bernays, Propaganda, Herman & Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent and Sissela Bok, Lying.

Lies, Rumors and Self-Deception

What constitutes a lie? When is lying appropriate? What are the systemic consequences of lying? How are lies propagated? What conditions encourage the spread of misinformation? What is the impact of lying and misinformation and society? What are the preconditions for “manufacturing consent?” What role does the individual play in feeding the rumor mill? These questions will be examined in the context of philosophical, political and social writings against the backdrop of contemporary issues.

War of the Words – Propaganda, Persuasion & Metaphor

To what degree does the language we use create the reality we see? To what degree do the metaphors we guide our own thinking – as a society and a culture -- about politics, crime, illness, love, and life?   If one takes metaphor seriously is it possible to draw a hard line between fact and fiction, between arts and sciences, between the objective and subjective? How is language used to consciously shape and transform our understanding? In this seminar we look at the relation between language, propaganda and true from several different perspectives. The objective of this seminar is both a practical understanding of how propaganda works and a theoretical understanding of what it is and its relation to the world that it describes.


What is genius? How does it work? Where does it come from? What relation does genius bear to more familiar aspects of intelligence? What’s the relation between genius and creativity? In this course we undertake an interdisciplinary examination of a cross-section of creative genius drawn from a variety of fields including science, mathematics, art, medicine, literature and business. We consider social, psychological, philosophical and behavioral aspects of genius. After some preliminary reading and discussion each student will select a creative genius of his or her choice to research and evaluate against the established framework. Each student will have an opportunity to present his or findings to the class.

Science & Pseudoscience

An investigation into the development and credentials of science as we know it today. The course will explore characteristics that purport to distinguish “real” science from pseudoscience, look at case studies from both sides of the issue, and explore the political, social, economic and philosophical dimensions of scientific objectivity.

Other Courses

Organizations That Learn

Organizations that learn … and those that don’t. In this seminar we take an interdisciplinary look at some of the characteristics which enable diverse sorts of organizations to learn, grow, thrive and innovatively adapt to their environment. Among other topics we will focus intensively on the role that leadership can play in the fostering organizational learning.

Readings and discussion topics will be drawn from a wide range of areas including psychology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, education, system dynamics, organizational behavior, anthropology, and more. We’ll begin by developing a basic framework by which to distinguish an organization that learns from one does not. We (meaning members of the seminar) will then apply this framework to a spectrum of organizations that may include small groups, classes, schools, social organizations, religious organizations, large businesses, entrepreneurial startup, and teams.

The seminar will be project driven and both group-intensive and group-reflexive. Small groups will be asked to “adopt” several organizations of a type of their choosing, research them against the learning organization framework, and present their findings to the other members of the seminar as a final project. A number of the seminar sessions during the semester will focus on various stages of this research project. Groups will also be required throughout the semester to reflect and report on their own behavior in the context of the material we develop from the readings and the class discussion.

The instructors’ personal goal for this seminar is twofold. First, to better understand the ways in which organizations – from classrooms to societies – block learning from taking place and inhibit natural curiosity and that powerful urge to grow so characteristic of all living organisms. Second, to try model what we learn in the seminar itself – to reflect the readings and discussion back into the seminar and thereby create a true learning organization.

Readings may include selections from (in no particular order) Peter Senge, Chris Argyris, Richard Rorty, Jay Forrester, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Drucker, Howard Gardner, Eric Jantsch, David Bohm, Edgar Schein, Gareth Morgan, Elliot Jaques, Clifford Geertz, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinus and more. These may be supplemented with articles, film clips and perhaps even a novel as appropriate.

Requirements: Due to the level and nature of this course enrollment requires permission of the instructor.

Knowledge, Truth and Objectivity

(Offered Fall 2003)

Truth describes the world as it really is.   Scientists and engineers deal in facts -- literary critics and art historians deal in opinions. Faith and intuition are less reliable guides to the truth than are reason and rationality. Certainty is what distinguishes real knowledge from mere belief. The truths of physics are objective in a way in which moral judgments cannot be. The difference between art and science is basically a difference in subject matter.

This course examines – and questions – some of our most basic beliefs about the world we think we know and the nature of our knowledge about that world. We consider questions such as the above from the standpoint of several seminal figures in the history of Western thought including Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and James as well as a few potentially seminal figures such as Quine and Rorty.   The goals of the course are to understand what these philosophers took to be the important questions concerning the nature of knowledge and then see to what degree these insights are relevant in our own everyday dealings with the world. To this end we’ll supplement the above readings with material from contemporary sources including novels (e.g., Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World), films (e.g., The Matrix, Memento, Mulholland Drive), the media (e.g. Washington Post, BBC, Al-Jazirah) and the arts (e.g., Copenhagen, Proof)

Introductory To Philosophy

A topical introduction to philosophy focusing on issues in metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of mind. Both primary and secondary sources will be used to related the perennial questions of philosophy to contemporary life and society.

Symbolic Logic

An introductory symbolic logic course with a practical spin. The course focuses on standard sentential logic, first-order predicate calculus and some basic meta-theory. Other topics include informal fallacies, inductive logic, and extended arguments.

Building and Sustaining Effective Teams

This course will blend current theory with a large dose of practice. Team projects will comprise at least half of the required work with students participating in at least two teams in the course of the semester. Topics include:

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