Taking Life to Save Life: War, Media and Humanitarianism

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
July 15, 2019 - August 02, 20197/15 - 8/02M-F 12:15P-3:05POpenMalay Firoz Arora

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Course Description

War. The bloody history of the 20th century is littered with them. The muddy trenches of World War II, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq are by now familiar images. But for those of us growing up in the 21st century, war in our time appears more chaotic and difficult to understand. Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy? Do battles have frontlines anymore, and if not, where do we fight? More importantly, when do we fight, and when does the war end? How do we even know we are at war? In the past, war was captured by special cameras carried by soldiers and news reporters. Today we see live videos of bombs raining down on Twitter. Does that change how we imagine warfare? What if video games are now indistinguishable from actual footage of war? What if drone pilots are trained on Xbox controllers? In an age where allegations of "fake news" fly left and right, what is "real news"? This course tackles these questions by examining the changing relationship between war and its media representations. Through disciplines ranging across media studies, culture studies, art history, anthropology, human geography, political science and international relations, we will explore how depictions of conflict influence the way we imagine foreign countries as battlegrounds, foreign cultures as threats to our freedom, and paradoxically, foreign sufferers in need of humanitarian "saving."

The course is centered around the end of the Cold War and the September 11th attacks, two momentous events that changed the conflict paradigms and national security priorities of states worldwide, and left an indelible imprint on the world to come. Such complex world events cannot be captured by any single disciplinary approach, so this course is designed to offer a wide variety of methods and perspectives. Over the course of two weeks, we will encounter political scientists debating how the Yugoslavian conflict changed the landscape of contemporary war, cultural critics discussing the role of photography in visualizing the Iraq War, and anthropologists relating the War on Terror to racism and cultural difference. We will go from a historian’s work on news coverage during the Vietnam war to a cultural geographer’s writing about the drone "gaze." We will even confront a philosopher proclaiming that the First Gulf War wasn’t real, that it was only fought on television screens! Such a diverse selection of ideas offers students a unique vantage point to discover how different streams in the humanities and social sciences approach the same subject, which will undoubtedly help students make informed choices about future specialization in college. To that effect, the instructor’s background in English literature, sociology, anthropology, development studies, media studies and Middle East studies will facilitate an eclectic classroom environment.

The course will be mainly structured around lectures and discussion. Students will read articles, book chapters, as well as news reports, blog posts and other media. We will screen documentaries and public debates as well as short clips from movies and video games. We will regularly hold group discussions and guided debates, and following a model of collaborative learning, students will bring media of their own - photographs, videos, paintings, art objects, news headlines, etc. - to share in class. By the end of two weeks, we will assemble an archive of contemporary media that helps us understand how we imagine distant wars, how we remember our national past, and the way we experience threat and fear. The final project will be a short essay on topics pertaining to the course and the media archive. In particular, these exercises will pay special emphasis on putting ideas ‘into practice,’ that is, bringing different ideas across disciplines into conversation with each other and using them to understand new political events and contexts.

This course will introduce students to debates on war and its relationship to media, culture and politics. Students will learn to critically reflect on course materials through group discussions, and hone their speaking and writing skills through class presentations and written assignments. They will become familiar with concepts and methods from a wide range of fields, which will not only prepare them for further academic study, but also train them to think plurally, that is, to ask complex layered questions about our social world and seek out diverse bodies of knowledge to answer them.

Prerequisites: This course has no necessary prerequisites, other than an open mind and an enthusiasm to learn new things!


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPS0967
  • Length: 3 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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