Student Seminars Explore Asian America and Artificial Intelligence

From exploring Asian/American identities to the ethics of AI, this year’s two John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities student seminars are spurring interdisciplinary conversations about our world today.

As a Haverford student, you have no shortage of options when it comes to exploring academic interests through coursework. From offerings on campus, to Bryn Mawr, to Swarthmore, and to the University of Pennsylvania, there are many opportunities to explore a range of topics and disciplines.

But what happens when students’ interests go beyond the bounds of the formal curriculum? The John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities (HCAH) has developed their student seminar program to push back against the notion that certain topics can only be explored in certain disciplines.

Since 2004, HCAH has sponsored more than a dozen student seminars that provide interdisciplinary insight into complex topics. From “What Are Poets and Polynomials For?” to “‘I Clutched at Sound’: Synesthesia Across the Disciplines,” students from all backgrounds across a range of interests have been able to explore their interests in a seminar setting among their peers. These seminars are student-proposed and student-led, carry no academic credit, and meet five times during the academic year. While each seminar has a faculty advisor, the advisor only attends one of the five sessions in order to ensure student-led discussions during the course.

“For students, the seminar program is their chance to imagine or design a course about a specific topic that they may have learned about in a class and want to explore further or something that isn’t in any class that they want a chance to think about with a group of other students,” said Weissinger. “It’s a chance for interdisciplinary reflection on a topic where students from a number of different fields and disciplines have something to contribute.”

HCAH provides a stipend to student seminar members in order to cover the costs of materials and related expenses for the course and encourages student leaders to bring in outside speakers to join the seminar conversations and engage the rest of the Haverford community with the topic. (Continued after the gallery.)

For the 2018-2019 year, HCAH is featuring two student seminars: “Asian/America: A Search for Belonging,” led by Rebecca Chang ’19 and Liana Shallenberg ’19, and “From Frankenstein to Alexa: A Humanistic Inquiry into the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” led by Katya Olson-Shipyatsky BMC ’19 and Nicky Rhodes ’19.

The former brings together Chang’s experiences as a growth and structure of cities major and Shallenberg’s knowledge as a psychology major to bring Asian-American studies to Haverford.

It’s an opportunity for us to share our interest in Asian-American studies because there haven’t been a lot of Asian-American studies-related classes at Haverford, so we thought that it would be cool to draw from classes we have taken that include this field and bring that to a seminar-style setting,” said Chang.

Alongside their faculty advisor, Professor of Psychology Shu-Wen Wang, Chang and Shallenberg have crafted a syllabus that captures the history of the treatment of Asian-Americans and Asians in the United States and delves into contemporary representations of Asian-American experiences.

“Something we were thinking about was approaching the topic from different historical and psychological perspectives of Asian America and questions like ‘What is Asian America?’ and ‘Who created the term?’ and ‘Who makes up Asian America now?’ and ‘How does Asian America have meaning and interactions among itself and with other groups?’” said Shallenberg.

“I’m excited to just have a space for people who are interested in learning more about Asian-American studies who come from different majors, different backgrounds, different personal experiences as well,” said Chang. “Not everyone in the seminar identifies as Asian and Asian-American, so I think that is cool because we are bringing in different perspectives and establishing connections between people with different backgrounds.”

The second seminar, “From Frankenstein to Alexa: A Humanistic Inquiry into the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” includes some of the most interesting summer reading in academia. Seminar participants, led by Rhodes and Olson-Shipyatsky, were instructed to come into class this fall having read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and having seen a more contemporary venture into the portrayal of Artificial Intelligence (AI): the HBO tv show Westworld. And the excitement on the syllabus does not end there.

“We will be exploring how artificial intelligence, seen through the lens of art, poetry, biology, fiction, and other visual texts, has been perceived throughout history,” said Rhodes, a growth and structure of cities major. “We will develop a framework based in the humanities to grapple with the serious ethical and moral concerns that we are increasingly being faced with.”

With the support of faculty advisor and professor of political science Craig Borowiak, this seminar includes a unit on AI and politics, wherein students will read academic essays on the subject alongside Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Seminar participants will then develop their own set of “Laws of Artificial Intelligence.”

This year’s HCAH student seminars continue the tradition of engaging students in interdisciplinary conversation and productive inquiry. From unique course materials to exploration of topics that may have otherwise not been present in the curriculum, these seminars present an opportunity to enrich one’s learning in a truly Haverfordian way.


Photos by Claire Chenyu Wang ’20 (“Asian/America: A Search for Belonging”) and Cole Sansom ’19 (“From Frankenstein to Alexa: A Humanistic Inquiry into the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence”).