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 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

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 in the 21st Century

This is a production course investigating documentary history leading to a focus on digital media representations today.  This course will incorporate critical thinking with production.  With focus on aesthetic and formal considerations, students will be asked to produce a series of multimedia projects investigating their vision of themselves in the world.

Taking a broad look at what defines "documentary" media, we will explore questions including the construction of voice and ideology, personal responsibility, truth versus fiction, the efficacy of video intervention, the ethics of representation the authority of mass media, and new forms of community.

Alongside media production, students will view and theorize key historic documentary works including ethnographic films, cinema verité, propaganda films, reality TV, corporate news, auto-biographic and activist videos, experimental film, video and new media. Students will concentrate on identifying paradigms and cinematic structures, and their evolution on the explosion of documentary representations in today’s digital sphere.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Course Instructor:  Branda Miller

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. This course is Communication Intensive and especially writing intensive. 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

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 1969

Instructor:  Sara Tack, Lecturer, Communication & Media

MFA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Human Rights in History

This course explores the historical development of modern international human rights through the lens of American foreign policy. Through lecture and discussion, this course will guide students in critical analysis of the narratives and national myths surrounding human rights in the history of the United States and the world. Major themes include the origins of human rights, human rights abuses, the human rights regime, human rights institutions, and problems of enforcement.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor: Kate Sohasky

Language and Power

Language is one of the most powerful forces in the human experience and plays a key role in the production of social identities and cultural assumptions about the world. This course examines the interconnections between language and power. It will provide students with the tools to identify and analyze the ways in which language undergirds various systems of social inequality, from the micro-level of linguistic structure, conversation and genres of speech to the macro-level of politics, social media, and other institutions that shape us. We will examine the linguistic and interactional dimensions of “standard” languages, gender, race/ethnicity, nationalism, politics, language death and revitalization, propaganda, and internet disinformation.

Course Number:  IHSS 19XX

Instructor: Tamar Gordon

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.

Instructor:  Kate Galloway

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

Popular Music and Society


Course Number: IHSS 1966

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


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

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.