2018-2019 Themes


Designers influence the creation of products, images, infrastructure and environments surrounding us, both virtual and real. Acting in a deliberate manner, designers engage with the problems facing their communities, and act to solve them by developing pragmatic, creative and innovative solutions. This course will use designers' activities as an analogy for individuals in other disciplines; in the end, everyone is a designer as they determine the context and direction of their life. Using design as our focus, we will explore individual responsibilities toward society: How can we act to bridge the gap between design and ecological sustainability? How can individuals acting locally compete within the global economy? Using hands-on activities, case studies, and historical investigations, we will university studies 5 explore techniques for design, visualization, and creative problem solving, and share our visions for a future where designing, and by extension all activity, occurs in harmony with natural systems.

While this course uses hands-on activities as part of the teaching and learning process there is significant amount of reading and writing expected.


This year-long course examines the nature and state of healthy individuals and populations in their various environments. A dynamic approach will be used to study the places in which people live and interact, such as the community, the workplace and the natural environment. Specific emphasis will be given to social determinants of health and the intersections between health, communities (local and global), and human rights. Topics will focus on ways to examine and address problems that affect health and well-being, ethics, and how social issues have a role to play in health outcomes.


The human animal is considered to be both a part of and yet distinct from nature. This relationship between our human selves and the natural world we inhabit is complicated and perplexing. This theme explores the complex connections between humans and nature. In what ways are we humans "natural"? Is there such a thing as human nature, and if so, what is it? How are we related to nature and our larger natural surrounds? How have we described and represented nature to ourselves? How have humans over the course of time understood and interacted with the natural world? How have our understandings of nature changed? Do humans have unique responsibilities toward the natural world and if so, what are they? Over the course of the year we will attempt to answer these questions, drawing on the resources of the social and biological sciences, history, literature and the arts.


The movement of people across borders is a central political and cultural issue throughout the world. In North and South, East and West, the issue of immigration, migration, and belonging (IMB) is a controversial one. Although most of us are aware of the mobility of goods and capital in a global economy, we tend to be less aware that the mobility of labor too is an integral part of the global economic system, or that most migration takes place not between North and South, but within the South. We also tend to forget that the movement of people, both as workers and as refugees, is not a new phenomenon. We also lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world's populations, including in the poorest countries, do not migrate across international borders.

Population mobility across international borders and the resultant transnational communities thus raise questions about the official “histories” of immigration for each nation state, the meanings of borders, the nature of belonging, identity, and culture and their relationship to politics, and the realities of multiculturalism even in places that think of themselves as monocultural. These important historical, cultural, and ontological questions about immigration, migration, and belonging (IMB) will frame our yearlong discussions and will inform formal academic research assignments and community-based learning projects and actions.


Modern biotechnology allows tinkering with life in unprecedented ways. Yet, what currently sounds more like science fiction is just the beginning of an exciting new era that bears both incredible risks and opportunities for humankind. This interdisciplinary year-long course will delve into the fascinating relationship between non-living and living matter, life and death, nature and the artificial, humans and machines. Our inquiry will start with the fundamental question what is life. How can a finite number of non-living molecules and atoms become a complex living organism with consciousness and moral beliefs? We will explore in what ways human search for perfection is embodied in various myths and utopian visions. What does it mean to be human, cyborg, or transhuman? Nowadays, genetic engineering modifies life and synthetic biology seeks to create it from scratch. However, the social consequences are enormous. Therefore, we will examine the risks and opportunities of such technologies and how they redefine social relations and values. These changes prompt the emergence of new concepts and disciplines, such as biopower, biopolitics, and bioethics that address the new forms of discrimination and social injustice. How do these modifications of life ultimately lead to a redefinition of life itself? Through readings, movies, research, hands-on experiments in designing artificial life systems through simulations, and discussions, the students will study topics ranging from philosophy to arts, from ethics to the evolution of language, from law, politics, and religion to economics, and from artificial cells to avatars. The course also offers unique creative, artistic, and educational opportunities for students by using modern simulation software.


How do our surroundings shape our lives? How do we shape our surroundings? In this course, the complex relationship between people and the places in which we live, recreate and work will be explored. We will specifically focus on Portland places: its place as a context for human development and cultural expression; its place as an urban area of diverse communities; its place within the natural, material, and social environment of the Pacific Northwest. We will discuss what connects people to their place(s) as well as what makes their place(s) part of their social, cultural, spiritual, economic and political life. We will read broadly, touching on cultural anthropology, urban studies, education and the natural sciences. We will provide opportunity for students to ground their understanding with applied experience by encouraging and supporting student interactions and field research within and among the communities and spaces of greater Portland.


What is power, what is it based on, and what forms can it take?  Symbols of power permeate our lives and cultures--what roles do these symbols play in shaping individual and group identities? Power relationships are communicated through visible and invisible signs and mechanisms. How do our shared cultural myths and stories shape the ideals, values, and power relationships in society? How do creativity and change occur in the face of cultural boundaries? This course will explore the interwoven relationship between domination, resistance, and empowerment-- from the interpersonal to the global-- through the stories of power and perception as they are represented in art and literature, science, and politics. Historical and contemporary case studies will help us understand the positive consequences and potential dangers of mythmaking. Special attention will be paid to the role of media and technology in constructing the public perception, the idea of the self, and reclaiming of misrepresented identity.


Most people in the United States value equality of opportunity. In reality, however, our social and economic system perpetuates various inequalities, including inequalities between socially defined racial groups Gunnar Myrdal, an architect of the Swedish social welfare system, wrote in 1955 that this "American Dilemma" would ultimately prevent the United States from building a society that would successfully put its values into action. He warned that if existing racial inequalities were not addressed, it would undermine our sense of shared identity and our moral purpose as a nation.This course will seek to address Myrdal's "American Dilemma" on two levels. First, we will study biology that undermines the concept of race itself; sociology that defines the concept as socially constructed; history that is not acknowledged in standard K-12 texts; and literature that opens a diversity of windows onto the experience of race. This knowledge can help students to move past stereotypes and appreciate the experience of people in other groups more deeply. Second, students will be welcomed into opportunities for personal reflection on their own social position and on the privileges and challenges that come their way simply because of the identities they hold. Thus, through both increased knowledge and personal reflection, students can develop capabilities useful to the work of moving U.S. society past its racial dilemma.


There is growing evidence that human activity is significantly transforming the natural systems that sustain us. Although we may often think of the natural world as something separate from our largely urban lives, our most basic needs such as nutritious food to eat, clean air to breath, and clean water to drink depend on the health of the natural systems of which we are a part. The focus of this course will be on exploring the possibility of maintaining a sustainable relationship between human communities and the natural world. To investigate this question we will explore the interconnectedness of global systems (including physical, ecological, cultural, social, and economic). We will begin in fall term by focusing on natural systems and how they are affected by human activity. In winter we explore how different social and cultural systems, both past and present, interact with and influence their natural surroundings. We conclude in spring by taking a critical look at how cultural, economic, and political traditions shape our relationship to the natural world, including how the human relationship to nature is understood, the ways economic well-being is measured, and how terms such as "sustainability" and "green" are used in the media, by interest groups, organizations, and constituents. Throughout the course students will be encouraged to read and research widely on these issues, report on their findings, participate actively in discussions, and develop a deeper sense of responsibility for their own habits and choices.


This theme focuses on some of the great literary works, watershed scientific discoveries, and seminal insights and creative acts that characterized the last two millennia of human thought and culture. We will take up the canonical texts of the Western Tradition and the great works of other traditions, shifting between ancient Greece, the Americas before European contact, seventeenth-century Japan, Enlightenment Europe, colonial Africa, thirteenth-century Persia, and the United States in the twentieth century, among others. To do so we will cross disciplines at every stage, working to understand how history, literature, art, philosophy, math, and science are not discrete disciplines, but have always influenced and contributed profoundly to one another.


Approaching art from a dance of disciplines, this course examines how the work of art shapes, reflects, disguises and complicates our personal and cultural identities. Throughout the year, we will think "the work of art," both what it might be as an object or experience and what it might do as a possible agent for social, political or personal change. Questions we will ask and explore answers to include: How does the art we do and the art we experience shape our identity? How does it disguise or reveal our essence, heal our hearts, and enable our joy? How can we use the arts to build community? What can the arts reveal about ourselves, our cultures and our societies? What is the relationship between the aesthetic and the political? How do we evaluate art? What is expressed or communicated through art? How does art change according to its place and time? Through these and other questions we will explore the various roles that art plays in our imaginary, political and social lives.