ENGL 208
Designer Genes Spring 2025
Division I Difference, Power, and Equity
Cross-listed STS 208 / WGSS 208 / AMST 206

Class Details

In this course, we explore cultural texts that attempt to come to terms with–or exploit–the revolution in contemporary genetics with a particular focus on gender, race, class, and sexuality. The mapping of the human genome in 2001 opened incredible opportunities for medicine, law, and society, but it also, as Alice Wexler has written, “opened a vast arena for contests of power over what it means to be human, who has the power to define what is normal, [and] who has access to what resources and when.” Wexler was writing before the final sequencing of the human genome. Now we have CRISPR technology, ushering in a new, more pressing set of ethical concerns. We are currently in the midst of a “global race to genetically modify humans,” as the anthropologist Eben Kirksey has documented in his new book The Mutant Project. How will we come to define the human? Who gets to decide? Our writers and filmmakers make clear that genetic medicine cannot be thought apart from a profit-driven American health care system or family and gender dynamics. Joanna Rudnick’s documentary In the Family, for instance, explores the personal and political issues associated with hereditary breast cancer and the patenting of genes. Octavia Butler’s Afro-futurist novel Dawn explores black female sexuality, reproduction, and the survival of the species in her character’s encounter with a genetically enhanced alien species. The film Gattaca shows us a fully realized dystopian society where genetically modified humans are the norm–a society that now “has discrimination down to a science.” The transgender artist Tamara Pertamina, on the other hand, “hopes to decolonize the science of genetic engineering,” as Kirksey has written, with her performance artist projects. Our texts come from a number of different genres, including the memoir, science fiction, film, documentary, art, and non-fiction writing at the intersections of science, medicine, philosophy, anthropology, and law.
The Class: Format: seminar
Limit: 25
Expected: 25
Class#: 3599
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: Personal essay, short analysis papers, final research group project
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: None; if class is overenrolled, professor will ask for statements of interest.
Distributions: Division I Difference, Power, and Equity
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
ENGL 208 Division I STS 208 Division II WGSS 208 Division II AMST 206 Division II
DPE Notes: This course asks students to think deeply about questions of social justice in the context of the revolution in modern genetics. Race, class, gender, and sexuality all play a role in who has access to new life-saving technologies, and how these technologies are used. This course employs critical tools (feminist and queer theory, ethics' case studies, close reading) to help students question and articulate the social injustices at play in scientific research and bioengineering.
Attributes: AMST Critical and Cultural Theory Electives
ENGL Criticism Courses
ENGL Literary Histories C
WGSS Racial Sexual + Cultural Diversity Courses

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