Profile of a FWIS: An Ancient Empire, Art Criticism, and Sustainability

As the course registration period opens, the Program in Writing and Communication begins a new series featuring FWIS course profiles. Each course in the series is being offered in spring 2016. View all course descriptions here!

FWIS 129, Chingis Khan and the Empire of the Mongols

An Interview with Lisa Balabanlilar, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
Many people are aware of the extraordinary levels of violence deployed by the Mongols in their conquest of much of Eurasia, and it's true that they were often stunning in their brutality, but most of us don't know anything about the culture of the Mongols--their religion and values, their military technologies, their understanding of leadership, succession and the role of women. As rulers of the largest land empire in world history, they carried ideas and technologies across the continent, from Korea and Vietnam to Hungary and Syria, and the result was a fascinating hybrid of politics, spirituality and artistic expression.

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I began my own studies in Turkish history and came to love the study of the various tribal polities of Central Asia. The Mongols, as the premier Central Asian empire builders, have a surprisingly rich and complicated story, and their legacy can still be felt across the world. 

What advice do you have for first-year students (about FWIS or their first semester in general)?
First, plan to take a lot of naps! Second, seize this opportunity to spend time exploring ideas and let yourself feel the excitement of learning exciting new things. The FWIS can be such an important part of your first year--working with a small group in a relatively informal discussion-based setting, the FWIS can encourage you to explore the literary/historical world and your own capabilities as a scholar.

 

FWIS 138, From Leo Tolstoy to Cornel West: Art Criticism in Context

An Interview with Rachel Hooper, Instructor

How did you get interested in this topic?
I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where my access to art was limited. But my high school art teacher subscribed to Art in America, and I started to get a sense of what artists were up to by reading the reviews. Most of the artworks I had seen in my hometown were pleasant, pretty paintings of the countryside, but I learned through reviews that art could be so much more. Art can be funny! It can be infuriating! It can draw you into complex emotions and ideas that take a lifetime to understand. As an undergrad, I wanted to try to share artworks by publishing essays. I wrote reviews for the school newspaper and have worked as a freelance critic and editor ever since. 

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
Rice University is filled with sculptures, photographs, and paintings, and I want to give students an excuse to pause and take time to think about the art that surrounds them. We will visit galleries, museums, and artist studios near to campus and learn how to navigate different types of art spaces. I am especially excited about guest lectures by some of the most controversial art critics working today. I want students to learn to write art criticism by engaging with what is going on right now as well as the history of the genre.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
To trust their instincts and let them lead to insight. Art is most interesting when it is hard to put into words, and that makes art criticism a very liberating form of writing. You have to learn to sit with uncertainty and work with it. I think that is why so many novelists, poets, and philosophers have written art criticism. The visual has a way of defying the verbal, and yet, there is something so satisfying about trying to make sense of what you see. Many first-year classes are about facts, figures, and solutions. This FWIS is about disturbance, inspiration, and discovery.

 

FWIS 143, Sustainability in America

An Interview with Abby Goode, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
In this course, students develop their own original sustainability initiatives. As we examine novels, speeches, and films and work on our writing and oral presentation skills, we will also be working, little by little, on these initiatives. Last year, students came up with creative ideas about food waste management, cardboard furniture, and rooftop gardens, connecting them back to literature and culture in ways that radically shifted our sense of sustainability. They proposed them to a group of Rice administrators and staff, who gave them encouraging feedback. (And it was fun!) Many of them have met with me about moving forward with their initiatives. And some may even come visit our class.

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I'm writing a dissertation on the American literary history of sustainability. This project has shown me that sustainability has been around for longer than we think, shaping debates about population, economics, and family and gender dynamics for centuries. I've found that literary texts were fundamental in the development of the concept of sustainability. In FWIS 143, we will examine this lesser-known history.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester? 
Two things: 
1. HERLAND! Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) is a wacky, utopian novel about three male explorers discovery of an all-female universe. What does it have to do with sustainability? You'll have to take the class to find out.
2. Helping students develop their original sustainability initatives. We all learn so much in the process.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
It's easy to assume that sustainability, environmentalism, and love of nature are all synonymous. But in this class, we'll come to understand sustainability as a multi-faceted concept that engages population control, feminism, architecture, forestry, reproduction, agricultural practices, and social justice. By the end of the course, students develop their own, original visions of sustainability, and they are able to argue for the importance of these visions. Students will become confident, effective communicators and they will know how to apply these skills throughout their college careers and beyond.

What advice do you have for first-year students (about FWIS or their first semester in general)?
Save brain power with a google calendar! During your first year, there is a lot to remember. Whenever you learn of a social event or important deadline, enter it into your calendar and set up a reminder. Your calendar will email you about upcoming events, so you don't have to remember them yourself, or feel flustered when you forget about things. Plus, it frees up valuable brain space and helps you stay organized.