Introductory Seminar in Human Ecology

Fall 2003

Course Overview

Instructor: Dave Feldman
Office: Second Floor, Turrets Annex
Phone: x249, 276-5284
Office Hours: TBA, and by appointment.
Mailing List:

Course Overview

I have several goals for this course. I want you to:
  1. Experience and participate in an introductory example of a human ecological approach to a complex problem.
  2. Practice and improve some skills: writing, discussing, critically reading.
  3. Learn some stuff about inequality, economics, statistics, political philosophy, segregation in U.S. cities, etc.
  4. Have fun while working hard and challenging our ideas.

Catalog Description:
This interdisciplinary seminar is designed to provide students with an introduction to human ecology. The focus of this year's class will be the topic of wealth. We will take an interdisciplinary, approach to this topic, drawing upon the work of novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, artists, and others. In so doing, our aim is to provide a model for a human ecological approach to a complex social phenomenon, and to give students experience in defining and addressing a complex subject. An additional goal of this course is to introduce students to critical reading, writing and discussion skills that are an essential ingredient for a student's success at COA.

All sections of this course will begin by reading The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The seminar sections will be taught separately, although there will be several guest lecturers that will give all-campus presentations on topics of common interest to all sections.

This particular seminar will center on three broad questions of the distribution of wealth. First, to what extent are resources and income distributed unevenly throughout the world and in various countries and societies? Second, do these inequalities matter? Why or why not? And third, how do inequalities arise, why do they so often persist, and how, if ever, can inequalities be ameliorated?

We will read selections from a number of current and classical political and economic thinkers as we consider these questions. In addition, a central component of this course will be examining what light, if any, simple mathematical and computational models can shed on questions of the origin of inequalities and strategies for producing more equitable outcomes. Computational models similar to the ones we'll consider in the class are playing an increasingly important role in social scientific and biological research. In this course students will gain a critical introduction to this style of modeling. One of the questions that will emerge is the extent to which one can, or cannot, predict large-scale phenomena based on knowledge of simple interactions or "rules of the game." We will also briefly discuss ethnographic and historical approaches to questions of inequality.

Evaluation will be based on class discussion and participation, several short papers, several problem sets, and the final presentation. Prerequisites: high-school algebra. No computer experience is required. Introductory. *HE* Lab fee $50.

Textual Materials:


Your evaluation will be loosely based on the following: I will assign grades (for those who so opt) by following the guidelines in the COA Course Catalog. I do not have any quota of A's, B's, etc. I very strongly encourage students to opt out of a letter grade.

Policies, Assignments, and Stuff: First Draft

  1. The final version of this and related documents can be found on the course web page,
  2. A more colloquial list of what to expect from this class and how to get a lot out of is can be found here.
  3. We may need to schedule an extra class or two during weeks 9 or 10 so we have enough time for the presentations.
  4. As I plan on often sending out homework assignments and other information via email, it is important that you check your email semi-regularly.
  5. There will be a final synthetic paper, project, and/or presentation. We'll discuss the details of this in a week or two.
  6. In addition to the final project, there will be a few short papers and a few problem sets.
  7. The particular topics and sets of readings we cover toward the end of the course is flexible and will depend on student interest and feedback.
  8. I expect you to attend class.
  9. Academic misconduct -- cheating, plagiarizing, etc. -- is bad. Any cases of academic misconduct will result in a judicial hearing, as per pp. 14-15 of the COA handbook. Possible consequences range from failure of the assignment to expulsion. For more, see the revised statement on academic integrity passed by the faculty last winter.

[ Dave ] [ Intro to Human Ecology ] [ COA ]

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