Fall 2020 Courses

These are the courses that may be taught during the Fall 2020 semester.


Course Descriptions

AI and Society

In this course, we'll jointly explore the central ideas and anticipated societal impacts of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

  • What is AI and how will it shape the world in the decades to come?
  • What ideas enable machines to see, use language, and reason, and how will these machines affect the world?

You will be introduced to state of art development in AI, discuss how the growth of AI impacts individuals and society, and explore how we can make AI better serve people’s needs.

With the rapid development of technologies, AI is playing an increasingly important role in our society. AI can not only facilitate people in their everyday lives (e.g. smart home, Siri and other chatbots that provide directions and other useful information, Amazon’s drones for making deliveries), but also have the power of monitoring and manipulating people’s interaction. The study of AI therefore should come not only from the technological perspective, but also social and psychological perspectives.

This course is an excellent gateway course for an HCI concentration where human computer interactions are construed in the broadest possible terms.  This course is also an excellent foundation for the informed and responsible use of computer-based technology.

Course Number: IHSS 1972

Ralph G. Noble, Associate Professor, Cognitive Science

PhD, Comparative and Physiological Psychology, University of California, Berkeley


Mei Si, Associate Professor, Cognitive Science

Ph.D., Computer Science, University of Southern California

The American Dream

The term “American Dream” is familiar, but what role, specifically, does the imaginative play in American literature and culture, past and present? We will begin our explorations with a history of the American Dream, focusing on the role of imagination or fantasy during two eras: the nation’s founding and civil rights. Grounded in these histories, we will turn our attention to how the Dream is portrayed in literature from a variety of periods as well as contemporary cultural texts, such as advertisements and film. Throughout our studies, we will inquire: What role does fantasy play in national identity? What is the function of a national imagination? How does the history of the American Dream, in particular, translate to our contemporary context? Assigned authors include Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Langston Hughes, Upton Sinclair, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gish Jen, and Bharati Mukherjee. Course requirements include reading/viewing responses, student presentations, and a capstone assignment that allows students to choose between an analytical essay or a hybrid critical/creative project.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Skye Anicca

Are Humans Rational?

women with circuit board overlay effect on her faceThe Aristotelian dictum that we are rational animals is under attack these days. In fact, the previous sentence may be to seriously understate the situation: the dictum is perhaps outright rejected by many, if not most.

From psychologists of reasoning and decision-making to behavioral economists to the "new atheists" (all groups whose message we will consider in this class), the onslaught is firmly underway, and fierce. Yet this course revolves around a defense of the proposition that Aristotle, modernized along Leibnizian, Piagetian, and Bringsjordian x2 lines is right.  This course is communication intensive.

Course Number: IHSS 1964

Selmer Bringsjord, Professor, Cognitive Science
PhD, Philosophy, Brown University

The Art of Listening

young adult male sitting on a stage with a variety of toys in front of himIntroduction to Deep Listening​ is a practice developed by pioneering composer Pauline Oliveros to enhance and expand listening abilities and to encourage creative work. In this course, you will develop a heightened awareness of sound, both as a medium of expression and in you daily life. Classes are designed around experiential exercises, sound pieces, readings, and discussion. Musicians and non-musicians of all abilities and backgrounds are welcome!

Course Number: IHSS 1970

Behind the Television Screen

Television is considered to be one of the defining social, political and cultural features of consumer culture. Today television is changing. It is morphing into something more expansive and diverse. In this course, we will dive into television. We will study its impact and we will learn to make it.  This course helps students develop critical tools with which to understand TV today. It also orientates students to the creative and the technical aspects of multi-camera productions. Through hands-on experience students will learn to produce and direct their own multi-camera projects. Students will work in teams on both the technical and creative aspects of production. Students will learn how to operate the studio gear including the green screen, live switcher, studio cameras, audio, teleprompter, lights, etc.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Elizabeth Press

Century of the Gene

textbook ink drawings of various bird speciesThis course details the scientific and social history of genetics, from Darwin and Mendel to the Human Genome Project. Special focus areas include: plant and animal breeding in the early twentieth century; eugenics movements in the U.S. and elsewhere; bacterial and fruit fly genetics; the development of molecular biology; the invention of recombinant-DNA technologies; the emergence of the biotechnology industry; the sociobiology controversies; genetics and evolutionary theory; and the Human Genome Project and contemporary genomics.

Course Number: IHSS 1410

Kate Sohasky, Lecturer
PhD, Johns Hopkins

Contemplating New Media, Culture, and Politics
Designing Climate Justice

Why is climate change an issue of justice, and not simply a problem to be solved through new technologies and economic solutions?  How is climate justice different from, and a challenge to, mainstream environmental frameworks? This course will introduce students to the theories and concepts of climate justice. Students will investigate the ways in which climate change is entangled with histories of racism, sexism, ableism, and economic disparities and come to understand the role of design methodologies within this framework.

Course Number: IHSS 19XX

Instructor: Jara Moesch, Phd

Science and Technology Studies

Documentary: Whose Narrative?

What defines "documentary”?  This course explores truth versus fiction, personal responsibility, community involvement, the efficacy of video intervention, the ethics of representation and the authority of mass media, as well as aesthetic formal considerations, students will be asked to produce a range of media artworks questioning conventional documentary styles, experimenting with diverse techniques to realize their own unique style.  Alongside this production, students will view and theorize about traditional documentary works including ethnographic films, cinema verité, propaganda films, but also "home movies," reality TV, tabloid news, auto-biographic and activist videos, experimental film, video and new media. Students will articulate their own personal voice and vision in documentary practice.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Kathy High, Professor

Department of the Arts

Exploring Music @ Rensselaer

performance theater entranceExplore the fundamental materials of music, sound, and musical thought across many cultures. View musical elements through the lens of different cultural practices and traditions. Using a variety of examples from classical, popular, and non-western musical forms, we will examine the essential elements of music, including concepts of pitch, rhythm, melody, texture, ombre, and musical form.

Drawing on the resources of EMPAC and the Rensselaer faculty, you will experience a variety of live musical workshops and performances and discuss interdisciplinary evaluations of music and its effect on our minds and bodies. You will be challenged to create your own music, and to explore the impacts of music relative to your own interests and concerns.

Course Number: IHSS 1010 

Instructor: TBA

Fiction: From Film to the Internet

You will study contemporary novels and short stories exploring the cultural contexts and social impacts of film, television, robotics, simulations, info and bio technologies, Internet security and privacy, and the Society of the Spectacle, including the World Wide Web, social media, mass advertising and entertainment, and fake news. For more information visit the course website at: http://homepages.rpi.edu/~zappenj/Literature/Fiction/fiction.html

Course Number: IHSS 1976

James P. Zappen, Professor, Communication and Media
Ph.D., University of Missouri

Game Sound & Musical Play

What makes play musical and music playful? How does game sound and music contribute to gameworld creation, gameplay, and virtual performance? Ludomusicology—the relation of music to play—addresses these questions and challenges us to take play seriously. This course considers the diverse relationships among music, play, media, and performance, including game sound, music-stylistic features of game consoles and systems, children’s games, remixing and sampling, the role musical games play in cultural identity and more.

Course Number:  IHSS 1XXX


Kate Galloway

The Genome and You

child looking at futuristic dna strandThe ability to sequence complete genomes has had a revolutionary impact on medicine, agriculture, our environment and the very idea of what it means to be “human”. Genomic medicine will impact virtually everyone in the United States in the coming decades.

As informed citizens, it is important that we have a working understanding of genomics and its implications for individuals and for society at large. These conversations are critical to ensure the ethical and accessible use of genomics and to allow us to make informed decisions on both personal and public-policy levels. This course will explore the science, ethics and history of genetic research, genomics, genetic testing and modification using case studies to illustrate and personalize the issues at hand.

Course Number: IHSS 1150

Susan L. Smith, Lecturer, Cognitive Science
PhD in Philosophy, University at Buffalo

History of Animation

This course is an exploration of the history of animation. We will begin with a look at precursors to the medium, its formation, and development, trace its development through both mainstream and experimental animation, to the current state of the medium across film, interactive media and other forms. The course will be based around screenings, readings, discussions and response and research papers.

Course Number: IHSS 19XX

Instructor: TBA

History of Design

Design is and has been a means to solve problems by addressing how the materiality of form enhances function. Through a historical perspective, you will discover how design shapes, and is shaped by, culture and society. Sampling a range of fields, including graphics, architecture, and fashion, you will consider how design thinking takes on challenges from the most mundane to complex social or environmental concerns.

Course Number: IHSS 19XX

Instructor: TBA

Human Rights in History
Law, Values, and Public Policy

This course examines the effect of our values on public policy and law by examining current topics like:

  • gene editing,
  • artificial intelligence and machine learning,
  • abortion,
  • "fake news" and freedom of speech,
  • intellectual property,
  • gun laws,
  • drug laws, and 
  • climate change.

Course Number:  IHSS 1350


Lawrence Howard, Senior Lecturer
JD, Brooklyn Law School


Media and Society

paper airplane made from newspaper on fireA survey of the historical origins and cultural impact of several mass media, including television, film, radio, the Internet, and print media.

The course aims to increase media literacy through analysis of specific media products, as well as discussion of broad topics such as: advertising and commercialization; politics and censorship; gender, race, and social identity.

Course Number: IHSS 1560

Weina Ran, Lecturer, Communication and Media
PhD in Communication, Washington University

Minds and Machines

hands extended - one with a red pill and one with a blue pillThis course is an introduction to the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. You will meet with fellow students in small sections to have class discussions and debate about subjects like:

  • Are minds physical or not physical?
  • Do we have free will?
  • Does our reliance on technology turn us into cyborgs?
  • How close are we to building an intelligent robot or machine? Do we want to? 

You will learn how to make a philosophical argument and how to express it in writing or through an oral presentation.

Course Number: IHSS 1140

Bram van Heuveln, Lecturer, Cognitive Science
PhD, Philosophy, Binghamton University

John Milanese, Lecturer, Cognitive Science

PhD, Philosophy, University of Albany

Music and Nature

sunset drawing with birds flyingMusic and Nature explores the intersections between music and nature from a variety of disciplinary perspectives – artistic, scientific, spiritual/religious. Music will be approached as artistic expression, drawing on diverse world cultures, as well as a form of knowledge that can heighten our sensitivity and awareness of the world around us.

Music and Nature incorporates reading and writing assignments, and individual and group creative projects.

Course Number: IHSS 1962

Nature and Society

This course focuses on the social and ecological aspects of humans in the natural world. It emphasizes critical thinking about where humans come from and where they are going as a species. The course draws on historical perspectives and addresses contemporary issues such as climate change, national energy resources, and the local foods movement. The course includes readings as well as student projects, field trips, guest lectures, and “ethnographic” assignments about this consumer society.

Course Number: IHSS 1110

Instructor: Brandon Costelleo-Kuehn, Lecturer, Science and Technology Studies

PhD, Science and Technology Studies, RPI

News Media, Culture & Politics

This is a contemporary culture course focusing on current political and social issues and their representation in the news media in the United States (which will be set within a historical and global framework) and in contemporary culture, such as films, exhibitions, and works of art.

Course Number: IHSS 1973

Instructor: Maryanne Staniszewski, Associate Professor, Arts

Ph.D., Art History, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Open Source: Art, Music & Culture

The concept of “Open Source,” once exclusively linked to a certain kind of politically and economically engaged set of software production, has experienced a period of growth and transformation in the 21st Century. “Open Source” projects can now be found in disciplines and activities ranging as widely as computer science, hardware development, artistic practice, design, bio hacking, and social justice work, as well as in artistic and technological experimentations in LGBTQ and racially intersectional communities.

Though “Open Source” practices across all these domains vary wildly, a common thread that runs through all these groups is the commitment to collaboration and to distributed “making” tools. Through a hybrid of readings, discussions, and collaborative papers and art projects, this class will explore the dynamics and politics of Open Source knowledge, collaboration, and distributed technical and artistic production.

Course Number: IHSS 1965


Chris Tozzi, Senior Lecturer
PhD, Johns Hopkins


Ben Chang, Professor
MFA, Art Institute of Chicago

Popular Music and Society


Course Number: IHSS 1966

Popular Music Production Seminar (How Technology Changes Music)

An observation- and discussion-based course looking at the ongoing relationship between popular music production and technological progress. Discussions and assignments examine how prevailing recording formats from the Edison wax cylinder up to the MP3 file, as well as transmission formats from radio to bitstream, have directly influenced the recording production of almost a century of popular music, and vice versa.



Ross Rice, Lecturer, Music

Principles of Economics

word cloud of economic related termsEconomics is the study of our choices. Traditionally, these choices have been framed as how to best employ scarce resources to produce goods and services and distribute them for consumption. To describe these choices, we will introduce you to the concepts of opportunity cost, demand and supply theory, and market structures and consider the role of government in making resource allocation choices.

A foremost objective will be to identify and evaluate multiple diverse perspectives on contemporary and complex global issues and address their implications for social equity and welfare. We strive to take a critical look at these perspectives while practicing and applying the subject matter of economics.

Course Number: IHSS 1200


Sarah Parrales, Lecturer
PhD Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Race and Film in U.S. Culture and History

shadow projection of a girlThis course will investigate the emergence and transformations of the concept of race in the history and culture of the United States by analyzing films. Hollywood classics will be featured, and will also be contrasted with documentary and independent films. The course will focus on social and political contexts, as well as the film’s critical reception and film form.

Course Number: IHSS 1300

Mary Anne Staniszewski, Associate Professor
PhD, Art History, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Religion in a Global World

collection of religious artifactsThis course explores the role of religion in different cultures and in the everyday lives of people around the world. You will be introduced to key concepts, themes, and debates in social science. The role of religion and rituals will be examined through classic texts in anthropology, sociology, and political science — and in ethnographic cases relating to different types of societies, from traditional to modern American cultures.

We will begin with some basic theoretical issues before discussing contemporary issues such as the relations between nation and religion, violence and religion, climate change and religion, and “magical thinking” in technology and science. 

Course Number: IHSS 1666

Patrick Royer
PhD, University Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Remixing in Digital Culture

This class introduces students to questions and controversies of remixed musical media, analyzing the ways music and other texts (e.g., paintings, plays, places, novels, technologies, historical events) are adapted through processes of revision, remix, sampling, and re-staging to create new layers of meaning. The course explores the power of musical media and referential texts to structure human experience and the role of the artist/listener as manipulators and interpreters of meaning across comparative media texts.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Galloway, Lecturer

Department of Communication and Media

Revolutions in Comparative Perspective

This course compares and contrasts a variety of so-called revolutions, ranging from the Scientific Revolution, to the American, French and Russian revolutions, to the Industrial and Digital revolutions.  We will also study important political and cultural movements that have not been called revolutions, such as the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and consider whether they, too, count as revolutions.


The course's core goal is to analyze what constitutes a revolution, how the meaning of "revolution" has changed over time, and how social, political, economic, cultural and technological factors intersect to foment revolutionary activity.


Course Number: IHSS 1967

Instructor: Christopher Tozzi, Senior Lecturer, Science and Technology Studies

Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University

Science, Technology, and Society

An introduction to the social, historical, and ethical influences on modern science and technology. Cases include development of the atomic bomb, mechanization of the workplace, Apollo space program, and others. Readings are drawn from history, fiction, and social sciences; films and documentary videos highlight questions about the application of scientific knowledge to human affairs. The class is designed to give students freedom to develop and express their own ideas. This is a communication-intensive course.

Course Number:  STSH/STSS 1110

Eric Drumheller Schaffer

Songwriting Workshop

A communication-intensive course designed for students to develop their own voice as a songwriter. The course surveys the methods of successful songwriters, highlighting aspects of melody, lyrics, harmonic progression, story-telling, audience, and social context. Students develop a portfolio of their own original songs and lyrics, presented weekly and performed in a studio or live setting at the end of the term.

Course Number: IHSS 1700

Instructor:  TBA

Sustainability Debates

In this course, you will participate in a series of class debates, presenting and cross-examining the arguments of those who have a stake in various environmental controversies (about energy, toxic chemicals, consumption, etc.). You will also work in groups to design a proposal for a project to help solve an environmental problem. Throughout the course, you will be encouraged to develop your own environmental values and ideas.

Course Number: IHSS 1240

Eric Drumheller Schaffer

Technology and the Top Ten

Does it matter if a hit single is completely created by Artificial Intelligence, if the song is really good? What if it isn’t actually all that “good” but just promoted well? This class introduces students to technology and popular music, in particular Top Ten hits, and how decisions based on the available recording technology create ripples that affect the popular music and technologies that follow. Lectures will be interspersed with discussions, presentations, critical listening, and some digital foraging. To be discussed: direct to disk; magnetic tape; analog heyday; advent of digital; hip-hop and new rules; mp3 and internet; present and future.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Rice

Science and Technology Studies

Understanding Empathy

empathetic word cloud in shape of face silhouetteHow do you know what you are feeling? How do you know what others are feeling?

This course is an introduction to the emerging field of Social and Affective Neuroscience — one focused on understanding the brain mechanisms of emotions within and between individuals. You will explore emotions and empathy from neuroscience and other fields within a historical, developmental, and sociocultural context. Special attention will be paid to considering body and mind relationships and well-being.

Course Number: IHSS 1975

Alicia Walf, Lecturer, Cognitive Science
Ph.D., Behavioral Neuroscience, University at Albany

About Dr. Walf
Alicia Walf teaches several classes focusing on brain and hormone mechanisms and how we sense, feel, think and remember. She tries to satisfy her own curiosity about how the brain works by conducting research with collaborators from many fields outside her own, including the arts, architecture, engineering and medicine.

War and Technology

flying droneHow does warfare impact the evolution of technology, and how does technology influence warfare? Which ethical issues does new technology create for soldiers and civilians during wartime?

This course investigates these questions by examining the intersection between technology, war, military institutions and ethics in a variety of historical and present-day contexts. We will also study the role that technology is poised to play in the wars of the future.

Course Number: IHSS 1963

Chris Tozzi, Senior Lecturer
PhD, Johns Hopkins

Well-Being: Cultivating Curiosity

student holding drawing of half an animal face covering half of her faceHow do we maintain a sense of well-being in our lives?

Our path to well-being in body and mind is unique—arising from an awareness of our needs, goals and what we find fulfilling. You will use the theme of curiosity to explore what makes you tick, and what makes you feel balanced, stressed, or calm.

This interdisciplinary course uses practice-based learning, in-class writing, lectures, creative play, and reading.

Course Number: IHSS 1175


Alicia Walf, Lecturer, Cognitive Science
Ph.D., Behavioral Neuroscience, University at Albany

Alicia Walf teaches several classes focusing on brain and hormone mechanisms and how we sense, feel, think and remember. She tries to satisfy her own curiosity about how the brain works by conducting research with collaborators from many fields outside her own, including the arts, architecture, engineering and medicine.

Tomie Hahn, Professor, Arts
Ph.D., Ethnomusicology, Wesleyan University

Tomie Hahn is the Director for the Center for Deep Listening at Rensselaer. Professor Hahn is a performer, writer and ethnomusicologist. She likes teaching courses on creativity, contemplative arts, ethnology and the performing arts.

Western Music Appreciation

This course surveys the Western art music tradition from the Middle Ages to the present.  Students learn to recognize and describe the basic components of music, like texture, tonality, rhythm, dynamcis, and melody.  The influences on music by broad cultural and historical forces will also be explored.  Attendance at concerts is required, and lectures are supplemented by listening assignments and in-class demonstrations.

Course Number: IHSS 1740

Dr. Kate Galloway

Writing and Society

Students will focus on analyzing the expectations and needs of readers/users in different social settings we encounter.  Readings and writings will focus on topics important to contemporary society, and students will work on developing writing and speaking skills that will help them succeed in the types of communication situations they'll encounter in the future. The goal is to improve students' critical thinking and awareness of social context in order to communicate powerfully and persuasively in today’s mediascape.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor:  Barbara Lewis

Writing for Global Audiences