Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students
Childish Enthusiasms and Perishable Manias
College, we understand, is serious stuff. In college we know that it’s time to leave childish things behind: our favorite movies, games, cartoons, books, indeed the very idea of "favorites." Into the closet go the cherished things that once absorbed so much of our energies, that even once helped to define what we think of as our "self." The task at college is to search for deeper meaning, to gain the tools that will allow you to understand the way the world works in order to set out to affect it, or even change it. Serious questions need to be asked in serious fields; serious meanings need to be derived from serious texts. College and graduate school are sites of gravitas; weighty work is expected. But what of levitas —a lighter, more playful category? Does such a concept have a place at such institutions of higher learning as Stanford?
Gravitas and levitas can co-exist; one need not preclude the other. In other words, effective scholarship should not suck the joy from the world. Yet, what does it mean to do scholarly work that respects a child’s engagement with the world? To retain (or recover) the intensely pleasurable relation to particular objects or habits that we were allowed when younger? Does intellectually credible work depend upon a "critical distance" between the scholar and the object of study? Can we take something seriously without imposing a seriousness upon it that it may not possess (or want)?
This seminar will try to answer some of those questions. We will explore such "unserious" media as comics, cartoons, musicals, and children’s books, and encounter modes of critical engagement that stress experience over meaning, and investment over critical distance.