From artificial intelligence to the animal mind, these cutting-edge courses will make you wish you were back in college again.


EVERY YEAR, Macalester professors dream up new courses that examine important ideas from new perspectives, build on the latest research and technology, and bring unexpected subjects together in ways that shed light on today’s most pressing problems.

We scoured the course catalog to find some of the most amazing classes that students can take today, then asked the professors who teach them to share some of the insights they offer in the courses. You may just wish you had one more semester on campus to sit in on their classes.

Inside the Animal Mind

Julia Manor, visiting assistant professor, neuroscience studies, Psychology Department

You come home from a long day at work to find your dog—loveable Rover!—staring sheepishly at the floor. He’s tipped over the kitchen trash can while you were away, leaving a mess that he’s clearly feeling guilty about.

Or is he?

“People tend to anthropomorphize their animals way too much,” says Julia Manor. “You can show that the dog doesn’t feel guilt by knocking over the trash can yourself, leaving the house, and then coming back in. Your dog will respond exactly the same way. What they actually know is that ‘human plus stuff on the floor’ leads to bad things.”

Over the course of Manor’s class, students study the diversity of cognitive processes among animals, which are both simpler and more complex than many of us imagine. Bees, for example, can count to at least four. Prairie dogs can communicate both adjectives and nouns to describe the shape, color, and size of predators in their environment.

In the end, Manor says, she hopes students will appreciate the animal mind in ways that will help them create environments and enrichments for animals in our homes, zoos, research facilities, and rehab centers.

Even so, Manor admits she falls into the same traps as everyone else when it comes to her collie at home. Does he love her? She hesitates. “Well, it seems like love.”

Science Fiction: From Matrix Baby Cannibals to Brave New Worlds

James Dawes, DeWitt Wallace Professor, English Department

Science fiction explores interstellar travel and future worlds. For James Dawes, the genre also asks timeless questions about what it means to be human.

How do we know that anything around us is real? The existential question that drove Descartes in the 17th century also fuels the action in the three-part Matrix series—in a decidedly more audience-pleasing way. “You can answer the same question by having complex discussions about monism and dualism, and that’s great—but some people respond better by exploring that question in a more experiential way,” Dawes says, adding that there’s real value in contemplating philosophical conundrums in unique ways—as students do when they read works from such authors as Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Kazuo Ishiguro. “If you approach problems from a single discipline, you’re likely to ask questions in one way,” he says. “That changes when you study problems from multiple perspectives in neuroscience, biology, literature, and art.”

Car Country: The Automobile and the American Environment

Chris Wells, associate professor, Environmental Studies Department

There are few symbols of American freedom quite like the automobile. Cars offer tantalizing independence to teenagers. And the lure of the open road has inspired authors from Steinbeck to Kerouac.

But in some ways, we are shackled to our cars, not freed by them, says Chris Wells. Suburban landscapes, for example, are nearly impossible to navigate without a car, thanks to a common street layout that relies on residential streets, collector roads, and arterials that demand that residents travel miles just to get to the nearest convenience store. “Everything in the suburbs is arranged around the premise that people have cars,” says Wells. “If you don’t, you have to go to almost heroic lengths to get anywhere.”

For environmentalists, that structure is a troubling problem. “It’s not a problem that simply buying a Prius can solve,” Wells says. “Even if every car was an electric car, there would still be all the environmental problems of sprawl, and the problems of mass-producing hugely expensive, privately owned machines.”

It’s these larger questions about how we design our environments, and the unintended consequences that result from these choices, that Wells hopes students will think about deeply in the course. “[Environmentalism] requires us to really think through, and understand, the problems we need to address.”

Music and Freedom

Mark Mazullo, professor, Music Department

The American Civil Rights movement has countless iconic images, speeches, and moments. But how does the music of that era—Berry Gordy’s Motown, for example—define, evoke, and influence that world?

“I want students to think about what music means to people—Is it just window dressing to the actual political, cultural, and social movement?” asks Mazullo. “Is there something more real there?”

Mazullo and his students examine ideas of freedom and music through time. They study Mozart’s Don Giovanni, written around the time of the French Revolution, and music created as European countries including Italy, Finland, and Norway emerged as nations and developed national identities. “As nations begin to articulate what was special and different about themselves, they used music to serve as a symbol of that spirit,” says Mazullo. “This music was part of a larger movement that explored how people can be free by being members of a larger group.”

While students may ultimately disagree about the exact role that music plays during important historical moments, Mazullo wants students to understand the importance of listening to it deeply. “Music can oftentimes seem invisible, but I hope that they learn not to take it for granted,” he says. “I want them to see how it connects to the world.”

Constructions of a Female Killer

Alicia Muñoz, associate professor, Hispanic and Latin American Studies Department

When it comes to issues of gender and violence, we typically imagine women as victims in the equation. But Alicia Muñoz wanted to invert the stereotype: how do we view women when they are perpetrators of violence, and what does that tell us about who they—and we—are?

In the course, Muñoz and her students study cases of women who kill as contract-assassins, those who kill their children or abusive partners, and even those who’ve used violence as a means to political power. Nicaraguan guerilla fighter Nora Astorga, for example, was a key player in the murder of General Reynaldo Pérez Vega, and later became an ambassador to the United Nations.

The U.S. media in particular didn’t know what to do with Astorga, says Muñoz. “They play with her image as a sexy female killer—you don’t want to get too close, because you might get burned.”

Women who are violent, says Muñoz, are often portrayed as monsters or myths, stock characters instead of actual human beings with power and agency. Muñoz says that she hopes the course serves as a launching pad for students’ examination of our culture. “I want them to see the complexity of these women and this topic, but I also want them to use the tools they learn in this class to illuminate and interrogate society.”

Martin and Malcolm

Bill Hart, professor, Religious Studies Department

As iconic leaders in the Black Freedom Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are inevitably compared and contrasted for their approaches to addressing some of our nation’s most pressing injustices.

For Bill Hart, understanding how religion shaped each man is a critical piece of that history. King was a Baptist preacher, the son and grandson of clergy. Malcolm X, meanwhile, was reared as a Christian and converted to Islam twice as an adult. “Everything that King did came out of the basic convictions he had as a black Baptist Christian. And it’s impossible to understand what Malcolm X’s motivations were and what he did as an adult without understanding the role that Islam played in his self-understanding,” Hart says. “Their religious convictions were not sideshows: they are central to who they were.”

It’s this intersection of religion, ethics, and politics that Hart—and his students—find irresistible. “I’m interested in the way that both of these figures understand and pursue their respective notions of justice, especially within the context of the black freedom struggle.”

100 Words for Snow: Language and Nature

Marianne Milligan, visiting assistant professor, Linguistics Department

No matter what side you fall on in the debate about the rising temperature of the planet, there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, says Marianne Milligan: “The words we use to talk about it really suck.”

Nearly every term is a mouthful: environmental, sustainable, climate change, global warming. Compare that to other words and ideas that have entered our lexicon in relatively recent years: app, AIDS, SIDS. They’re short, sweet, and easy to pronounce.

So who cares? “We come up with short words for things that matter,” explains Milligan.

Language may be an exceptional tool for communicating, but it can also cleverly obscure meaning: in the pork industry for example, journals might refer to “damaged meat,” which is a euphemism for injured animals; “herd health” is about profit margins, not about the vigor of individual animals.

Ultimately, Milligan hopes her students understand that the words we use are about more than just dictionary definitions. “I had a student talk to me about the language she saw people using on Facebook for Earth Day,” she recalls. “That’s huge. I want them to be aware of the language we use every day and the impact it can have.”

Bodies and Minds: AI Robotics

Susan Fox, professor, Computer Science Department

For anyone who has ever wanted to bring a robot to life, there are few things as beguiling—or inaccurate—as the precision of a virtual world.

Susan Fox has watched students craft elegant programs to guide a virtual robot around a simulated world—only to despair when they shift their work to a physical robot in the real world. “Simulated robots have perfect sensors and motors,” explains Fox. “Real robots don’t. Students have to throw out all of their original notions and write programs that are responsive to the world.”

Fox’s class is a crash course on theory meeting practice, and it demands that students rethink many of the things they once thought they knew.

Getting a robot to walk, for example, is no easy feat. While walking may seem like a simple process, that’s only because the process is almost invisible to us. We adjust to rocky terrain, ramps, and stairs without a second thought, but to program the same in a robot is maddeningly complex. “Human walking is really controlled falling,” Fox says. “We’re constantly adjusting and responding, and that’s really what you need if you have a robot moving around in the world as well.”

The goal, she says, is to help students appreciate the many challenges that exist as we try to bring more useful robots into the world. “It’s not just high-level thinking that’s hard [in the realm of artificial intelligence],” she says. “It’s also many of the things—walking, seeing, interpreting—that we take for granted in ourselves.”

Pirates, Translators, Missionaries: Between Atlantic Empires

Karin Vélez, assistant professor, History Department

When cultures bump up against each other, there are always intermediaries who bridge the gap, for good or bad. There are translators who help groups communicate, missionaries who bring religion and culture from one place to another, and pirates who plunder one group and sell and trade their loot to another.

While we’re familiar with these categories—who can’t conjure up an image of a swaggering Johnny Depp as Captain Jack?—Karin Vélez wants her students to see that these categories are malleable, and that the more we know about people as individuals, the less easily we can drop them into a single, rigid category.

For example, Malintzin, a female translator who played a key role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, has been categorized as a temptress and a traitor, a victim and a symbolic mother. Missionaries, too, span the spectrum of good and evil. “Historians have so much power as storytellers to shape the way people think about subjects,” Vélez says. “How do we define people who mess with a category?”

The real question she wants students to ask is why, and how, we construct these categories. “How do we fit raw data into a category?” she asks. “Should we?”

Angels and Demons of the American Renaissance (1835-1880)

James Dawes, DeWitt Wallace Professor, English Department

James Dawes knows that most students would rather pick up a contemporary novel than work their way through Dickinson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, or Douglass. But he also knows that when students dig into the works of these early American authors, they may find a sense of energy and purpose that resonates with them, even from a distance of nearly two centuries.

“These authors were rejecting what they’d inherited and trying to start everything—the notion of the nation, of spirituality, of sexuality— anew,” he says. Dickinson explored questions of existential despair even in our humdrum routines; Thoreau’s Walden examined how our everyday choices are of grave consequence.

But even more than that, Dawes wants his students to see the connections among these writers, who knew each other, and fed off each other’s ever-higher ambitions. “There was this revolutionary cultural moment, and the writers’ belief in each other is part of what made that happen,” he says. “Every time I teach this class, I think in my head: the kids in this room—they could be that group. If they could be sufficiently inspired, they could make a difference like that in the world.”

August 17 2015

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