Cowell Core Course

The Cowell Core Course is a composition course required of all first-year students, and is offered only in fall quarter. Students meet two or three times weekly in sections of 20-25 participants. This seminar provides intensive practice in critical reading, analytical writing, and persuasive speaking. All college core sections of COWL 80 (both 80A and 80B) are designed to improve your writing and analytical skills, to introduce you to UCSC’s academic expectations, and to build an intellectual community here at Cowell College. Core course seminars are limited to a small group of students to provide an opportunity for you to work closely with each other and the instructor. You will enroll in a specific core course section based on your satisfaction of two writing-related UCSC requirements (ELWR & C1).

Directed by Provost Alan Christy, and by Lecturer Catherine Carlstroem, the Cowell Core Course focuses on conceptions of justice, both historic and contemporary, and considers how theorists, artistic media, and societies themselves may transmit, question, or revise notions of what is just. How do we define justice? When can we say that justice has been served? Do ideas about what is just differ according to time, place, and culture, or are some notions of justice recognizable as general human values?

Readings for 2017 cover works from classical to modern times, from the early Greek Oresteia trilogy, chronicling how Athenians first established a court of law in order to end a cycle of passionate violence, to contemporary authors and current controversies. By the time of our summer orientation, we hope to have the assigned books ready for purchase at the bookstore and the required reader ready for purchase from us.


On this site, you can find the following information:

For more information about enrolling in the Cowell core course, visit us here.


Texts/Readings for Cowell 80A & 80B Imagining Justice

Summer Reading

  1. Nayomi Munaweera: Island of a Thousand Mirrors
  2. Nick Sousanis: Unflattening
  3. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell: March (Trilogy of 3 books)
 Fall Books
  1. Cowell Core Course Reader. Available only through Bay Tree Bookstore
  2. Aeschylus: Oresteia. Trans. Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998
  3. Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice Pelican Shakespeare (Paperback) eds. Braunmuller, AR; Orgel, Stephen. New York: Penguin Books. Please buy this book only after you have met with your instructors, as some sections may offer an alternate edition.
  4. Julia Serano: Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (selected chatpers)
  5. Marjane SatrapiPersepolis, Book 1

We prefer that you have paper copies (rather than ebooks) of Fall Quarter books for use in class. Buy your books at the Bay Tree Bookstore. This summer, during orientation the books will be offered with a 20% discount. If you buy your books elsewhere, please be sure to get the version that is indicated in the list above. Please pay special attention to the translation version of the Oresteia and On Crime and Punishments


Summer 2017 Reading Assignment

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Dear Student,

We look forward to your arrival at Cowell College in the fall of 2017. As you know, you will participate in Cowell’s Core Course, also called Imagining Justice, Past and Present. The course begins with a summer reading assignment introducing many issues and areas related to justice. We write to you today to make sure that you can get a jump-start on this summer reading, which you should have completed before you arrive for Fall Quarter. You will be required to write a response to some questions about the summer reading, which you will turn in at the outset of the course in September. You’ll be given that writing assignment at orientation.

We have selected three works that explore justice from different perspectives and genres, including one novel, and two graphic texts—one a work of intellectual theory in a visual format, and the other a graphic memoir about the Civil Rights Era. Along with considering content—different ways to categorize and examine justice—we will also be considering rhetoric and form—the impacts and effects of genre (fiction, autobiography, argument; visual texts and verbal ones) as we begin the course and consider our own choices and strategies as writers.

Here are your summer reading texts. Please have them available to bring to class your first two weeks. Most instructors prefer you have paper copies.

1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a novel by Nayomi Munaweera, follows two families in Sri Lanka as their lives are changed forever by war. A San Francisco Chronicle review writes of it: “Nayomi Munaweera uses the child’s point of view to devastating effect in describing life during the seemingly endless civil war in her native Sri Lanka.” This narrative has challenging moments depicting the tremendous violence, including sexual violence, common to war, yet, the review notes, “the devastation in Island of a Thousand Mirrors gets delivered in a captivating story tempered with sensuality and moments of grace.” It calls on us to consider what justice, if any, is achieved through war, and it considers an immigrant’s experiences moving to the US.

2. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis. This book, a philosophical treatise using comics, asks us to reconsider perspective as a central aspect of how we know what we know, how we construct our understanding of reality, ourselves, and our social relations. It speaks to how we may initially view things from a two-dimensional, flattened, or superficial perspective, and considers how vision, and visual media present us with models of seeking more complex, multidimensional views.

3. March Books 1-3 by Congressman John Lewis and his co-authors wrote this graphic memoir about his deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Like many of our texts this quarter, it shows how inextricably interwoven the personal and political are, and gives insight beyond the easy iconography of this period.

Note: To help us all grasp some of the conventions and strategies for reading serious graphic/comic texts, we have appended a short synopsis of key ideas from a worthy book that may interest you: Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.

If you have any questions about your summer reading assignment which are not resolved during orientation, please email Cowell’s Core Course Coordinator, Catherine Carlstroem, at: mastodon@ucsc.edu

If you have questions about enrollment, your section type, or other concerns not related to the Cowell Core Course content, email: cowell@ucsc.edu

Books will be available at the UCSC Bookstore and can be purchased at a 20% discount during summer orientation.

Best Wishes,

Alan Christy

Provost of Cowell College
University of California, Santa Cruz


Summer 2017 Writing Assignment

Summer 2017 Writing Assignment

By now you’ve all received the summer reading assignment. This is the written component.

Cowell’s motto, “The Pursuit of Truth in the Company of Friends,” applies particularly well to your Core Course sections. We’d like to start this pursuit off from day one, getting to know each other as a community of writers and thinkers, so we ask that after you have read the assigned summer reading, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Unflattening, and March you respond to these essay questions with a few paragraphs of thoughtful consideration and analysis, using some quotes and references to specific events and passages in the texts as examples and evidence. This assignment is due at the first section meeting of your class (either Thursday, Sept. 28 or Friday, Sept. 29). About three (double-spaced) pages total, is sufficient. These responses need not form a formal essay (though you may later build on them to do so in sections), but should help you to explore and then refine some of your reactions and thoughts about the texts. You do not need to respond to all aspects—every question—of a prompt. The questions are meant to allow you to choose a direction to focus on in your answer.

We hope these responses will allow you to start meaningful conversations with one another right away, prepared with ideas—pursuing truth, not necessarily having it in hand. They’re also a chance for you to introduce yourselves as writers to your instructor.

1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors Choose one (either A or B) of these two possible directions for your response to this novel:

  1. Many of the characters in Munaweera’s book are paired or paralleled, sometimes across space (as with Saraswathi and  Yasodhara), sometimes across time, as different generations deal with similar concerns. Choose a pair of characters and explore how these parallels affect and enrich our larger understanding of themes, issues, or ideas they represent or convey. What did you come to understand by thinking about the similarities and differences highlighted?
  2. This novel traces the life of someone who eventually becomes a suicide bomber. Many of us have never considered how or why someone might commit such a violent and desperate act. What, in your reading of the story, were the key things—both personal experiences and larger sociopolitical dynamics—that drove this character’s transformation, and how might this story help us better understand some of the context that underlies such acts more generally? Did it change the way you thought about terrorism? Was there anything it helped you understand about violence, warfare, and ethnic/gender conflict? If so, how; which specific aspects/passages altered your thinking and feeling? (If you have personal experiences that also shape your response, you are welcome to include them.
2. Unflattening suggests how carefully considering perspective and examining ideas from multiple angles can help us see beyond the obvious. It also offers examples of how visual conceptions may convey information to us in unexpected, new, or additional ways. Using an insight or two that you gleaned from Unflattening, choose a short section or two from March, and discuss how the pictures and visual data conveyed information or fostered implications beyond what you might have gathered from a purely verbal format. What is enhanced, altered, or represented by the pictures, and how might reading Unflattening have helped you discover some of this depth?  

If you have questions about this assignment, feel free to email course coordinator Catherine Carlstroem: mastodon@ucsc.edu