Winter Courses: Literature and Composition & Government and Politics

January 29, 2021

Three weeks ago, I began the winter trimester of my senior year of high school. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and complications of virtual learning, my school adopted a new schedule this year in which students only take two academic classes per trimester. The classes, as a result of being condensed to nine to ten weeks, are much more intensive. My courses this term are English Literature and Composition and Comparative Government and Politics. As someone who has always loved the humanities, I thought it would be fun to share a brief synopsis of my courses thus far and highlight the readings, films, and areas of study I have most enjoyed learning about in each class.

English Literature and Composition

As a lover of literature, English courses have always been some of my favorites, and this class is no exception. We began by reading The Stranger by Albert Camus, a novella written in 1942 that explores the philosophies of existentialism and absurdism, and read it alongside philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." The Stranger is short but profoundly powerful, and the peculiarity of the protagonist and interesting exploration of philosophical ideas has led to very interesting conversations in class. 

An aspect of this course that makes it all the more interesting is that in addition to reading traditional texts, the class incorporates music and film. The first composition we listened to was Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. A ballet and orchestral concert first performed in 1913, the music is often described as the most influential in the twentieth century. Next week, we will discuss the album Damn by the American rapper Kendrick Lamar, which was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album in 2018. With regards to film, we watched No Country for Old Men, a film directed by the famed Coen brothers that won Best Picture in the 2008 Academy Awards. One of my all time favorite thrillers is Fargo, a movie also directed by the Coen brothers, and so I really enjoyed watching another film directed by the talented duo.

Having been given several options for independent reads, I chose Song of Solomon by the remarkable Toni Morrison, as I read her novel Beloved outside of academic classes in the fall trimester and fell in love with her style of writing. We will also start The Tempest next week, a play by William Shakespeare.

Comparative Government and Politics

Along with my love of English, throughout high school and middle school, I have also always enjoyed my history classes. In taking United States history during my junior year, my love of history branched into a particular interest in politics, and so I decided to enroll in Comparative Government and Politics. Given the current political climate in the United States and chaos of recent events, from the election in which former President Trump propagated baseless claims about voter fraud to the horrific insurrection at the capital building on January 6, 2021, this class has been especially fascinating. 

In addition to discussing the differences between states, regimes, and governments, comparing political regimes in countries including the United Kingdom, China, and Russia, and analyzing various political attitudes and ideologies, we spent this past week focusing on terrorism. Tasked with choosing an incident of terrorism in our country of citizenship, I chose to research and write about the tragic shooting in El Paso, Texas that occurred in August of 2019 at the hands of a twenty-one year-old white supremacist who specifically targeted Hispanic Americans. In my paper, I explored the ideologies that inspired him to act, including the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, as well as discussed the role of social media, the former president, and mainstream conservative news channels in sympathizing with white-nationalist sentiments and promoting hatred and fear. While learning about this tragic incident and the motives of the terrorist was intriguing, it was also quite frightening given the recent surge in far-white extremist ideology and violence that will no doubt continue to persist well into the next decade.

Must-Watch Documentaries: Social Justice & Politics | Part I

January 19, 2021

Just I love to read historical fiction and nonfiction books, I also really enjoy watching documentaries. Walking away from a film and feeling like you have learned something, that your eyes have been opened to a particular issue, and being filled with a desire to implement change and spread awareness is one of the greatest sensations. I wanted to share five of the documentaries I have watched over the past few months that really resonated with me and incited those trio of feelings within me that I mentioned above. Ranging from racial injustice and sexism to failure in political leadership, these documentaries cover a range of issues yet are also quite interconnected in their message and themes of social justice.

Part I | Must-Watch Documentaries: Politics & Social Justice

Part II | Must-Watch Documentaries: Politics & Social Justice

1. 13th


13th, a film by Ava DuVernay, explores how the Thirteenth Amendment contributed to a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects Black Americans. Having always been interested in the inequities of the criminal justice system and particularly the linkage between mass incarceration and drug enforcement, I found this documentary to be extremely fascinating but also angering and heartbreaking as well. Weaving together history with modern movements and featuring a plethora of prominent figures including Angela Davis, Van Jones, and Cory Booker, 13th masterfully exposes the systemic racism rooted in the United States and outlines steps to take moving forward.  

2. Athlete A

As a former gymnast, Olympic competitors such as Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Simone Biles were my idols. I always watched in admiration as they performed handsprings and somersaults on the balance beam, nailed landings off of the vault and uneven bars, and jumped into split leaps in floor routines. As viewers and fans, we only witnessed the highlights and perfect moments; smiling faces biting into gold medals and tight hugs after successful routines. What was not displayed, though, was the mental and physical abuses that so many of these gymnasts and their predecessors endured to get to the Olympic stage. Athlete A exposes the decades of abuse at USA gymnastics as they sought to conceal reports of sexual abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar.

I have always been fascinated by the second World War and the terrors of the Holocaust. If you have seen any or my book lists of lists of yearly reads, you would likely already know that, as many of the novels I read are historical fiction or nonfiction books centered around World War II. Prosecuting Evil is an extraordinary film focused on the life of Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremburg Trial Prosecutor. Beginning from reflections of his youth as an Eastern European immigrant to the United States and continuing beyond his years as a prosecutor restoring justice to those who lost their lives in concentration camps, watching Ben Ferencz' remarkable journey unfold and learning about his incredible commitment to justice will leave you emotional, inspired, and in awe.  

The Social Dilemma paints a harrowing depiction of the dangers of social networking. While this film does delve into the growing connection between social media usage and diagnoses of depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults, what most intrigued me about this film was the focus on artificial intelligence. The documentary explores how algorithms implemented by tech companies are manipulating and rewiring our brains and how such techniques designed to promote addictive behaviors among users have drastically increased political polarization by targeting communities and promoting disinformation. This film was so frightening and impactful that I will likely rewatch it in the coming weeks. 

Totally Under Control is my most recent watch of all of these documentaries. Though a documentary about COVID-19 may not be an appealing pick for a movie night given that the virus is still running rampant throughout the country, this film is an absolute must-watch. Totally Under Control exposes the severe mismanagement of the White House in addressing the coronavirus pandemic and compares the United States' response to that of South Korea, which discovered its first case of the coronavirus on the same day as the US but acted swiftly to implement science-based strategies that resulted in a fatality count that is a fraction of the US death toll. Highlighting the tragic politicization of science and cost of failed leadership, Totally Under Control is both powerful and maddening. Given that it dives into President Trump's spread of misinformation and the severe impact that had on controlling the pandemic, this would be great to watch in tandem with The Social Dilemma.  

Goal Setting Strategies for 2021

January 9, 2021

I have always been someone who loves the fresh start that a new year brings. While setting goals does not have to be only a yearly tradition, I really enjoy reflecting on the goals I hope to achieve in the upcoming year and the habits I need to create to reach those desires. It is so easy, though, to create intentions for the year, think about them for the first couple of weeks of January, and then get caught up in the business of the rest of the weeks and months and completely forget about the goals you set back in January. To combat that all too easy outcome, I am sharing the techniques I am using this year to hopefully achieve my goals. I hope these strategies are helpful, and I am wishing you a happy start to your 2021!

1. Quality > Quantity

From health and fitness, self-care, and relationship goals to professional and academic ones, there are so many areas of life for which we can set intentions and work to improve ourselves. It is so important, though, to practice quality over quantity when setting goals. Creating a list of twenty or more intentions, I believe, can be very overwhelming and hard to manage. That overwhelming feeling can often lead to a sense of burnout or realization that your goals may be unattainable, thus causing you to simply give up. By prioritizing a smaller set of aims for the new year, it will be easier to track your progress, reflect on your habits, and thus achieve success.

2. Specificity & Measurability

I used to be someone who would set very vague goals for my new year such as "be more spontaneous" and "read more." While I do think that phrases such as these can be helpful umbrella categories or overarching themes for your new year, the actual goals should be much more specific. For example, instead of saying "read more," give yourself a numerical value or an intention to read a certain number of books every month or quarter. Creating these more specific, quantitative goals adds an element of measurability that makes it much easier to track your progress.

3. Visible Reminders

Crafting a beautiful list of goals written in calligraphy and adorned with watercolor or stickers, while a great way to harness motivation for the new year, is useless if you simply shove that list of goals into a drawer in mid-January and forget about it until months later. The point is, without frequent and visible reminders of your goals, it will become much easier to forget about your intentions. Whether it be by pasting sticky notes on your door or setting alarms on a digital device, having constant reminders is essential to staying on track.

4. Accountability

When it comes to setting goals, everyone is different in the extent to which they like to share their aspirations with others. While I believe there is value in voicing your goals, I do not think that is the only method of keeping yourself accountable and often goals. Often, goals are very personal and sharing those aims with the world is not comfortable or even very productive. Accountability is still important, though, so find out what techniques work best for you  whether it be confiding in a close friend or simply making a routine of writing out your progress — and stick to that method.

5. Remember That Failure is Okay

Setting intentions for the new year should be exciting and enjoyable. Though of course we all want to achieve our resolutions for the new year, it is important to accept that we may not reach all of our goals and to realize that failure is okay. If you catch yourself being critical of and unloving toward yourself, take time to reevaluate why it is you set your goals in the first place and recognize that beating yourself up does not solve anything. Another facet of this piece of advice, though, is that when you set quantitive or measurable intentions such as running a mile every week or reading three books every month, when we miss one of those goals we say that we have "failed" and completely give up. It is important to remember, though, that the real goal is not in the routine. Rather, those routines of running a mile every week or reading four books every month are really just habits established to reach those larger, umbrella goals of living a happier, healthier lifestyle and expanding your knowledge. By keeping this in mind, you will not feel as discouraged if you miss that one run or fall short one book and will instead get back on track toward achieving your goals.