Cowell College One, Imagining Justice

Cowell College One, Imagining Justice, is a first year seminar designed to introduce students to university-level discourse, including key skills and common practices, and to facilitate analytical reading and engaged, well-reasoned responses to works from a variety of disciplines, all centered around the overarching theme of justice. The course’s first priority is building college-level reading proficiency in many genres as a foundation for ongoing practice in analytical writing skills. It emphasizes critical thinking and analysis in discussions and assignments, while also giving students opportunities to increase their speaking and presentation skills, modified to fit the course format this year, and to engage in creative expression. It also offers you an opportunity to try out and play with big ideas, to think aloud with others about the world around you, theorize, make mistakes, consider and reconsider your and others’ ideas and beliefs, and revise things you said or wrote before.

The course is based upon a slowly changing syllabus of significant texts–classical and modern–chosen because they reward close reading and stimulate thoughtful interaction between students and reflection on each students’ own experiences. This year’s Pandemic Edition of the course takes this moment in time as a lens through which particular issues about justice may be viewed, with some newly revealed or eclipsed, magnified or distorted. Your texts include scholarly works on political and sociological issues, philosophical treatises, fiction, drama, films, podcasts, a graphic work, and a digital archive, introducing you to a broad array of genres, fields, and types of materials you’ll encounter throughout your university career. It considers the characteristics and significance of the forms as well as content of these texts, asking you to consider the metadata and broader contexts these challenging texts arise from, along with generic and discipline-specific standards, as well as creators’ uses and deviations from these expectations. 

The principal assignment for students is to read/view/listen to (and re-read/review) the texts actively and analytically, to attend meetings prepared to engage in discussion of the material, and to respond to all assignments, formal and informal, thoughtfully, critically, and in the shared spirit of our Cowell motto, pursuing truth in the company of friends.

Forging this “company,” your campus and peer community, is another central goal: Traditionally, this course gives you an opportunity to get to know one another and an instructor in a small setting that fosters intellectual intimacy and inquiry and focuses on respectful exchanges of differing perspectives and ideas. It fosters collaborative learning as students work together to plan and lead some class discussion, do related research and present their findings. We will be working to achieve these aims in the distance-education format, with flexibility, adaptability, patience, and, we hope, good humor necessities in what, for what for many of us, is still a new model. 

The readings and other texts have been chosen to raise themes of justice, equality, and freedom. The course will also address ways in which philosophers and theorists, societies and individuals, and literary and other media may transmit, question, or revise notions of the 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 arguable as universal values?

 On this site, you can find the following information:

Texts for Cowell College One:  Imagining Justice 2020


  1. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2015
  2. Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. New York: St Martin’s Griffin 2012 
  3. “The Moral Instinct” an essay by Steven Pinker
Fall Books
  1. Cowell Core Course Reader. Available only through Bay Tree Bookstore.
  2. Kamo no Chomei, Hojoki A Hermit’s Hut as Metaphor Translated and annotated by Matthew Stavros (This translation is in the public domain and available as an inexpensive paperback with excellent notes and illustrations published by Licus Lusorum)
    ISBN-13: 9798633865431 Please use this Stavros translation
  3. Oresteia, by Aeschylus Trans. Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. (Please buy this translation. ISBN-10: 0872203905; ISBN-13: 978-0872203907)
  4. Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. New York: Pelican Shakespeare (Paperback) eds. Braunmuller, AR; Orgel, Stephen. New York: Penguin 2017 (ISBN-10: 0143130226; ISBN-13: 978-0143130222)

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.

Texts in other formats

  1. Digital Archive: Bancroft Library UCB Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1884-1944 A Digital Archive Timeline
  2. Podcast: Freakonomics Episode 413 “Who Gets the Ventilator” by Stephen J. Dubner
    Produced by Zack Lapinski 

And/or Podcast:  Radiolab “Playing God”

Summer 2020 Reading Assignment

Summer Reading

The assigned books and essay introduce many issues and areas related to justice. Please have these texts read by the beginning of the quarter, September 28. Your informal written responses to the summer reading, assigned below, you will turn in to your instructor electronically when class meetings begin October 1st and 2nd

We have selected three works that explore justice from different perspectives and genres. The first is a novel, the next a graphic text which considers intellectual theory and philosophy using a visual format, and the third is an essay about the shared values that underpin and shape ideas about justice across highly diverse cultures and historical periods. In our course, along with considering content—different ways to categorize and examine justice—we will also be considering how form and rhetoric play a role, looking at the impacts and effects of genres (for example, fiction, autobiography, and argument as well as thinking about larger categories, comparing, for example, visual texts and verbal texts).

Here are your summer reading texts. Please have them available to reference in classes. 

  1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors  Nayomi Munaweera. New York: St Martin’s Griffin 2012. ISBN-10: 1250051878 ISBN-13: 978-1250051875
  2. Unflattening Nick Sousanis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2015. ISBN-10: 0674744438 ISBN-13: 978-0674744431
  3. “The Moral Instinct” an essay by Steven Pinker

Island of a Thousand Mirrors This 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. 

Note: This book includes some violent and disturbing passages, including the depiction of a rape from the survivor’s perspective. If you have concerns about reading these passages, contact Core Coordinator Catherine Carlstroem. to discuss possibilities for navigating these scenes.

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.

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.

“The Moral Instinct” by Steven Pinker. This essay, originally published in The New York Times, explores what shapes morality itself, how we come to judge right and wrong, and what is universal or conventional in our values and ethics. It allows us to consider how big ideas (such as  What is subject to moral judgment?)  have changed over time, and how people may share a common desire for good, yet have opposing or even contradictory visions of what processes or goals constitute that good. Further, it allows you to more deeply consider which values take precedent as you consider social goods and justice. (Access it here:

Books will be available at the UCSC Bookstore.

2020 Writing Assignment

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 readers and thinkers, so we ask that after you have finished the assigned summer reading, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Unflattening, and “The Moral Instinct” you write (and draw, in some cases), a response. This assignment is due at the first section meeting of your class (either Thursday, Oct 1st or Friday, Oct.2nd). These responses need not form a formal essay but should have enough focus to help you to explore and then refine some of your reactions and thoughts about the texts; in other words, they should go beyond mere impressions, into more coherent ideas you are exploring. Note: You do not need to respond to all aspects—every question—of a prompt. The questions are meant to offer you potential directions to build 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 and thinkers to your instructor and classmates. 

Please respond to both 1 and 2, choosing one of the prompts (A or B or C) for each. 

  1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors Your response should be one to two pages, double-spaced. Choose one (either A or B or C,) of these three 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. Use “The Moral Instinct” to consider how two different characters/groups (or one character, at different periods) in Island of a Thousand Mirrors prioritize and interpret their moral choices, choosing specific events to focus on. You might look at the five notable areas of morality it states most cultures and periods consider: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity and discuss how any of these intersect with acts subject to moral judgment (e.g., slapping or accepting someone, going to war, rejecting tradition, etc. ). How might the moral instinct itself be called up or manipulated for other purposes? What do you think of the choices and reasoning you highlighted? 
    3. 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. How do its lessons about perspective help us understand aspects of Island of a Thousand Mirrors?  Choose one (either A or B) of these two possible directions for your response to this question. 
    1. After selecting a particular scene from Island, draw a graphic adaptation (it may also include words) that highlights some particular aspect that interests you. Before you begin drawing think about: How might pictures and visual data convey information or foster implications beyond what you might have gathered from a purely verbal format? Be sure you aren’t just illustrating the scene, but instead using drawing to interpret it (that is, showing how drawing can focus on a particular perspective or set of ideas). After your short comic (1-3 pages) write a paragraph answering: What is enhanced, altered, or differently represented by the pictures you chose, and how might reading Unflattening have helped you discover some of this depth?  
    2. Using an insight or two that you gleaned from Unflattening and its discussion of conformity, dimensionality, and perspective, write a page or two (double-spaced) exploring how concepts you’ve identified in specific pages of Unflattening have illuminated your understanding of specific parts, characters, or scenes in Island of a Thousand Mirrors. 

If you have any questions about your summer reading or writing assignments which are not resolved by orientation, please email Cowell’s Core Course Coordinator, Catherine Carlstroem.

If you have questions about enrollment, transcripts, or other concerns not related to the Cowell Core Course content, email Cowell Advising Office.

If you have difficulty (financial or other) accessing the texts, please email the Cowell Provost, Alan Christy.