Sample Syllabus: Miniatures

First Year Writing Seminar, Princeton Writing Program, Princeton University

The cellphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers that launched the Apollo––and much, much smaller. From dollhouses and model trains to Mini Frappuccinos and tiny PillCams that diagnose digestive disease, miniatures are everywhere around us. How might we explain the complex allure they exert, all out of proportion to their size? In this Writing Seminar, we explore miniatures of the past and present in order to understand the perspective they give on questions of control, nostalgia, privacy, freedom, and the relation of humanness to technology and the natural world. We begin by critiquing and refining Susan Stewart’s definition of the miniature by revisiting the sources she analyzes in her essay, including miniature novels and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. We then analyze Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”—crime scene dioramas used to train forensic scientists and detectives —through the lenses of architecture studies, criminology, photography, forensics, and theories of the “cute.” Finally, students research a miniature of their choosing. Possibilities include: the Valdivian Rainforest in Chile where small animals live in a closed ecosystem, the miniature food movement, micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, nanotechnology, “coffin homes” in Hong Kong, the Twitter novel, and bonsai plants.

At stake in our analysis of miniatures is how miniatures create different narratives and forms of knowledge— scientific, cultural, or artistic.  How can we make sense of the miniature genre? In what ways do miniatures complement and subvert narrative? What is their role in illuminating science? This is a writing course in which you will learn to develop ideas in reflection upon many different kinds of evidence and argument:  literary and film analysis, ethnographic data, critical theory, and the products of contemporary culture.  Each of these genres calls for different and complex combinations of writerly skill and imagination.  It is a course in college argument and thinking, a study you implicitly requested by choosing to come to a liberal arts university.  A writing course will show you, as few other courses can, that the learning process never stops; one doesn’t “arrive” at being a good writer, but rather continually becomes one.  This writing seminar asks you to be thoughtful and self-reflective about that process:  to question and evaluate your own work in each assignment and in the course as a whole. Miniatures are a perfect way for you to figure out how you want to grow as a writer, thinker, and scholar because they provide small stepping stones and ways into new projects and avenues of exploration.  Part of assessing your progress will be developing your sense of what you already do well.  In addition, the course will challenge you to figure out how you want to grow as a writer, thinker, and scholar.