Cowell College One, Imagining Justice

Cowell College One, Imagining Justice, is a first year analytical reading and critical thinking seminar required of all first year students, offered only in the Fall Quarter. It provides intensive practice in critical thinking and analysis, while also giving students opportunities to increase their speaking and presentation skills, and to engage in creative expression. More broadly, it introduces students to university-level discourse including key skills and common practices, and UCSC’s academic expectations. It works to build an intellectual community here at Cowell College not only within the incoming class, but across all students at Cowell, since some texts are held over from year to year, so that students from frosh to seniors have reading and ideas in common.  Core course seminars are limited to about 30 students to provide an opportunity for students to work closely with each other and the instructor.

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?

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. Readings for 2018 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. Texts include scholarly works on political and sociological issues, philosophical treatises, fiction, drama, poetry, visual texts including painting and photography, oral history, and digital works. By the time of our summer orientation, we hope to have the assigned books and the required reader ready for purchase at the bookstore.

On this site, you can find the following information:

Texts for Cowell College One:  Imagining Justice 2018

Fall Books

  1. Cowell Core Course Reader. Available only through Bay Tree Bookstore.
  2. Oresteia, by Aeschylus Trans. Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. (Please buy this translation.)
  3. Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. New York: Pelican Shakespeare (Paperback) eds. Braunmuller, AR; Orgel, Stephen. New York: Penguin 2017
  4. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. New York: Crown Publishing/Penguin Random House 2016 
  5. Maus by Art Spiegelman (This book was published in two volumes originally, so please get either The Complete Maus, which includes both, or Maus volumes 1 & 2). New York: Pantheon Books, 1980
  6. Twilight Los Angeles 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith. New York: Knopf Anchor books, 1994

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.

2018 Reading Assignment

Summer Reading

We have selected two works that explore justice from different perspectives and genres. The first is a novel, the other a graphic text which considers intellectual theory and philosophy using a visual format. 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 genre (fiction, autobiography, argument; visual texts and verbal ones).

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.

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.

  1. 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.

Books will be available at the UCSC Bookstore and can be purchased at a 20% discount during summer orientation.  A course overview and reading list, as well as e-copies of this assignment, are available at:

Summer 2018 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, and Unflattening, you write (and draw, in some cases), a response. This assignment is due at the first section meeting of your class (either Thursday, Sept. 27 or Friday, Sept. 28). 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 allow you to choose a direction 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 to your instructor.

Please respond to both 1 and 2.

  1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors Your response should be one to two pages, double-spaced. 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.)
  1. 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 the 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 questions about this assignment, feel free to email course coordinator Catherine Carlstroem.