Explorations Course Themes & Faculty

Explorations Course Themes & Faculty

Explorations Courses focus on enduring questions. Enduring questions do not have easy answers; instead, they encourage examination of complex issues from multiple perspectives, introspection, evidence-based arguments and learning how to respectfully discuss controversial and difficult topics.

Learn More About Our Courses and Faculty

Every first-year student will take an Explorations course during their first year at Merrimack College. This course fulfills a general education requirement. Learn more about the courses and faculty below, and rank your favorites on your Academic Interest Form. The link to your Academic Interest Form can be found in your MackTasks in myMack.

Dr. Cinzia DiGiulioDr. Cinzia DiGiulio

Dr. Cinzia DiGiulio received her Ph.D. in Romance Studies and Comparative Literature from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Currently, she is Associate Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultural Studies at Merrimack College. She specializes in 19th-century popular culture (mostly British, Russian, and Italian) and its intersections with contemporary popular culture.

“A World of Monsters”

“A World of Monsters” is a film class that explores examples of the monstrous in world-wide cinema and popular culture. What is a monster? What makes a monster “a monster,” and why? What do we do with monsters, and what does it say about us – our culture, our society, ourselves, and the world we live in? Using the monster as a powerful metaphor, we will investigate and discuss the role of the monster/ monstrous across a variety of popular movies from around the world, from classic to current cinema. We will examine how monsters can help us interpret our anxieties about the challenges we face in our lives, from technology to climate change, from global health to world economy, from consumer culture to race and gender relations, and so on. Whenever appropriate, we will also “sample” comics, TV shows, fan art, classic tales, and popular novels.

Prof. Mary McHughProf. Mary McHugh

Mary McHugh is the Executive Director of Civic & Community Engagement and is an instructor in the Political Science Department. She teaches courses such as Campaigns & Elections, The American Presidency and Congress & the Legislative Process. As director of the Stevens Service Learning Center, she works with students to get them involved in the community.

“Active Citizenship: A User Manual”

In the current political climate, students are becoming increasingly frustrated and disengaged with the political system. Many students come to college with little to no understanding of and interest in how to be a citizen or of the skills needed to be one. This class introduces you to and allows you to practice the basic skills and knowledge needed to be a confident and engaged citizen. We will address topics such as citizenship, democracy, and voting, Throughout the semester we will address misconceptions about politics and government and give you tools to analyze, research, write and talk about politics.

Dr. Ellen McWhorterDr. Ellen McWhorter

Dr. McWhorter is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Honors Program at Merrimack College. She earned her PhD in English with a specialization in Modern American Poetry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the limitations of language in Modernist literature, and her work has been published in journals such as James Joyce Quarterly and the European Journal of American Studies.

“Art, Imagination, and the Pursuit of Creative Thinking”

The focus for Dr. McWhorter’s Explorations course is art and the roles it plays in our lives and learning processes. Broadly conceived, art (literature, painting, sculpture, music/lyrics, photography, etc) is sometimes moved to the margins of traditional valuations of higher education. “Art is for fun; college is for education,” a critic might say. In this course we will take art seriously, as a medium for conveying truths about our lived experiences, a vehicle for inspiring social change, and a critical component to the learning process in all academic disciplines.

Prof. Sarah ComoraProf. Sarah Comora

Prof. Sarah Comora RN MSN is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Nursing. She earned her MSN from the University of New Hampshire. She is a critical care RN with over 15 years of experience in healthcare education and leadership. Her current certifications include TNCC, PALS, ACLS, and BLS Instructor. Interest areas focus on new graduate nurse assimilation into practice, critical care residency programs and continued competency in professional nursing practice. As a high fidelity healthcare simulation specialist she utilizes technology and looks for creative ways to enhance critical thinking and competency in nursing practice.

“ Emotional Intelligence for Surviving & Thriving”

This course is part of a themed group of exploration courses that will study the emerging theme of “Surviving and Thriving Amid Stress”. Students will be asked to consider the enduring question: Can developing emotional intelligence decrease diversity stress and promote enhanced respect and collegiality among diverse groups by utilizing self-awareness and responsiveness to others? In progressing towards answering the enduring question, this course will explore the concept of Emotional Intelligence as core competency for successful navigation in today’s diverse world. Secondary concepts of self-awareness, self-regulation, awareness of others, empathy, compassion, and resilience will be explored. Students will examine each competency, participate in interactive discussion with classmates and then reflect on learned experiences. The course will cumulate with a shared project consistent among all “Surviving and Thriving” courses.

Dr. Ellen FitzpatrickDr. Ellen Fitzpatrick

Dr. Fitzpatrick received her Ph.D. in Agriculture and Natural Resource Economics from Michigan State University. Her research focuses on international development policy and practice, specifically the dynamics of sustainable and resilient regional economies; food and livelihood systems; and program design, evaluation, and impact assessment. Her work includes research in Africa, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Latin America, and Turkey. Currently, she is also working with local partners to increase community-based economic capabilities in vulnerable populations.

“Environmental Change, Health and Well-Being”

Dr. Fitzpatrick’s course examines human flourishing through the lens of environmental change. The big questions we will discuss are; how is our environment changing, what is causing these changes, how does environmental change make us more vulnerable to disease and poor health, which populations are at more risk and what can we do locally and globally to minimize the impact of these environmental and health changes on human flourishing.

Dr. Michael StroudDr. Michael Stroud

My research interests are focused on exploring both basic and applied questions within visual attention and the science of teaching and learning. My primary area of research revolves around the question of why it is often difficult to search for multiple objects at once. This question, as well how we mentally represent objects during visual search, is best revealed through monitoring eye movements during various visual search tasks. By understanding the basic question of how we represent objects to guide search, we may better understand more critical applied research questions like how to improve visual search for airport security screeners, radiological detection of tumors, etc. My secondary area of research is devoted to investigating projects in applied cognitive and educational research. Specifically, what are the most effective ways to present materials to students to foster the greatest level of learning and comprehension.

“Harnessing your Inner Curiosity”

A major theme for Dr. Stroud’s course is curiosity and its role in learning. Traditional education places the highest value on memorization which constantly overshadows curiosity. Students are put in the mindset of consuming information regarding how it will prepare them for an exam rather than what incites a level of curiosity. This course will focus on the importance of inspiring curiosity through traditional educational experiences.

Dr. Andrew CoteDr. Andrew Cote

As a composer of acoustic and electronic music, Andrew Cote’s compositions have been performed and recorded across three continents. His works have been featured at the Navy Band International Saxophone Symposium, the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic, the World Saxophone Congress, and various other festivals and conferences. His latest album, Ulterior Motives: The Saxophone Music of Andrew Cote, is available on itunes, Amazon, and most other online retailers. Andrew previously taught music composition, orchestration, music technology, and directed the new music ensemble at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Andrew began teaching at Merrimack College in the fall of 2020, where he teaches courses in music theory and music technology.

“Identity in Music”

The purpose of this course is to gain an understanding of the many ways in which understanding musical traditions found in a community can provide a pathway to deeper understanding of the world views, power, and structures found in underrepresented communities. Additionally, as an explorations course we will examine the Merrimack College Connections program which ALL students complete during their time at Merrimack.

Dr. Deana Bardetti

Dr. Bardetti received her Ph.D. from Lesley University and her Master’s Degree from Harvard University. She is a sociolinguist with extensive experience teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to students both in the USA and abroad. She is a visiting lecturer of pedagogy and linguistics at the Winston School of Education and Social Policy. She conducted her doctoral research with teachers of the children of immigrants in both the Boston area and Rome, Italy.

“Language, Power, and Identity”

“How do we construct our ideas of language, dialects, and registers?” Topics to explore include the notion of “correctness”, multilingualism, and language variation. Students will consider complex real-world issues of sociolinguistics and language policy in a variety of contexts and settings.

Dr. Lauren RochaDr. Lauren Rocha

Lauren Rocha is an Assistant Professor of Practice in English and the First-Year Writing Coordinator at Merrimack College. She specializes in horror and film, particularly issues related to gender and family. Her research interests include the intersections of popular culture and pedagogy, especially in relation to science-fiction/horror texts. Her work has been published in Critical Survey, Journal of Gender Studies, and Popular Culture Review.

“Making a Monster”

Our culture is fascinated with monsters. From a young age, most are familiar with some type of monster. Zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, witches, and more supernatural creatures haunt our history and texts. What do these monsters say about certain groups of people? What do these monsters say about ourselves? This course will explore different categories of popular monsters in texts, including film and television, to understand how authors draw inspiration from socio-cultural influences in creating these characters and figures. In doing so, we will better understand the messages embedded within. We will ultimately challenge what it means for something - or someone - to be considered just that: monstrous. As an explorations course we will examine the Merrimack College Connections program which ALL students complete during their time at Merrimack.

Dr. Jimmy FrancoDr. Jimmy Franco

Dr. Jimmy Franco is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. He earned his Ph. D. from the University of California, Davis. His research interests include medicinal chemistry, chemical education and photodynamic materials.

“Medicine, Science and Decisions”

The course will explore the relationship between medicine, society and decisions. The class will examine how our understanding of medicine influence our personal choices, social policies, and behaviors. The course will traverse from basic science concepts to how medicines are discovered, developed, and disseminated and ultimately to how our understanding of therapeutics influences our decisions. Some of the topics that will be addressed in the course will directly relate to DEI issues, such as pharmaceutical drug prices, vaccine mandates, cycling drugs off the market, clinical trials (current and past practices) and social policies related to medicines. While the course will cover fundamental science and medicinal topics, the class will be open to students from all majors.

Dr. Brandi BaldockDr. Brandi Baldock

Dr. Brandi Baldock is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon. Her laboratory research focuses on investigating how the structure and composition of nanoparticles impact their reactivity towards biomolecules such as DNA and cellular biomarkers. Her chemical education research focuses on developing new ways to engage students and promote their success.

“Pollution: A Necessary Harm?”

Dr. Baldock’s course focuses on exploring the question, “How do we know when it’s worth polluting the environment to help humans survive and thrive?” Topics include quantitative chemical analysis, structure-property relationships, molecular toxicology, and environmental justice. Students will consider complex real-world problems, such as how pollution affects the biochemistry and well-being of diverse populations and strategies for reducing its negative impacts.

Dr. Inès OuedraogoDr. Inès Ouedraogo

Dr. Ines Ouedraogo teaches in gender and sexuality studies as well as race and ethnic studies. Her research interests are characterized by an interdisciplinary approach that blends gender & sexuality studies, film studies, ethnography, with feminist and queer theories. Her dissertation Devouring the Patriarchy: Anthropornophagy and Pleasure Politics in Brazilian Pop Porn Festival analyzes a selection of sexually explicit films screened at a Brazilian film festival in São Paulo in 2017 and seeks to understand how concepts such as taboo and shame, moralism and conservatism can permeate the sexual experience.

“Poverty and Inequity: Obstacles to Human Flourishing”

What does it mean to be poor? How does the meaning and experience of poverty vary depending on the country, culture, and historical moment in which it exists? How do people experience poverty, and how does the meaning and experience of poverty intersect with notions of gender, race, sexuality, nation, religion, legal status, and ability? How is wealth accumulated or denied? While acknowledging that poverty is an economic condition, this course focuses on poverty from a social and cultural perspective. It looks at poverty through the prism of intersectionality, exploring how the meaning and experience of poverty varies depending on one’s social location.

Dr. Kirstie DobbsDr. Kirstie Dobbs

Dr. Kirstie Lynn Dobbs received her Ph.D. in political science from Loyola University - Chicago and is currently a faculty member in the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at Merrimack College. She specializes in youth political participation with expertise in the Middle East and North Africa and the Arab spring revolutions of 2011. She conducted field research in Tunisia and Morocco and currently engages with numerous community organizations in Lawrence, MA.

“Rebels, Riots, and Revolutions

As a young person, have you ever wondered how you could make a change in your community? Have you ever felt powerless to make a difference, but at the same time, feel inspired by emerging youth leaders like Greta Thunberg for climate change and the scores of young people who marched in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020? In Dr. Dobbs’ course, we will answer three fundamental questions for making a change in a community: What is power? How do you get it? And How do you use it? Students will become familiar with rebellion, revolution, and other forms of youth civic activism geared at promoting institutional and structural change for the benefit of society.

Dr. Gwyne WhiteDr. Gwyne White

Dr. Gwyne White is an Assistant Professor of Psychology who earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University and is a licensed Clinical Psychologist. Her research focuses on the complex relationship between social-emotional competencies and youth outcomes in relation to academic success. Specifically, she explores how self-efficacy as well as neurocognitive constructs like executive functioning, can influence differential trajectories of mental health and relate to academic achievement.
“Saving Ourselves From Stress?”
Dr. White’s course is part of a themed group of exploration courses that will study questions of “Surviving and Thriving Amid Stress.” The purpose of this course is to provide students with an exploration of stress from the perspective of psychology. We will study how different types of human distress impair functioning and what options are available to help ourselves and others. This course will use an integrative approach toward the study of psychological stress, including the interaction of biological, developmental, and social factors, in considering the cultural context in which stress impacts the individual. We will make use of case studies, develop treatment manuals, and use readings and online class discussions to see if we can possibly save ourselves from stress.

Dr. Peter EllardDr. Peter Ellard

Dr. Peter Ellard teaches courses in religious studies, philosophy and environmental studies. He has a particular interest in the crossover between science and the humanities. His research covers a wide span from medieval thought to, environmental ethics, to contemporary issues related to mindfulness and climate change- yes it’s real and it’s going to be cataclysmic. Dr. Ellard hosts a radio show on Merrimack’s WMCK each week, once played at CBGBs in NYC and, if you do a deep search, you will find that he swam and played water polo in college at Fordham University, and he was a lifeguard to 20+ years.

Searching for Your “Self”: From the Big Bang to Consciousness

This course focuses on the enduring search for one’s self. The exploration includes the search for meaning and the search for happiness. Humans for thousands of years have reflected on the question of self identity - as it relates to other humans, the divine, and the rest of the beings on - and perhaps off - the planet. Many of the world’s religions and philosophies were built on this search. This course will pay particular attention to how we might learn to better care for the self, regardless of its ultimate meaning or end. We will also explore how one might do this in the context of a world with great social disparity, injustice, racism, plague, and climate destruction. The themes of mindfulness, wellness, compassion and joy will guide many of our conversations of the search for the Self.

Dr. Tahir HameedDr. Tahir Hameed

Dr. Tahir Hameed is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Girard School of Business since 2018. He teaches in the areas of Management Information Systems, Databases and Business Analytics. He obtained a Ph.D. in Information Technology Management from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). He has a masters in computer science and a bachelor’s in industrial electronics engineering with professional experience in engineering and software industries. Dr. Hameed’s current research focus is on health analytics. He also enjoys reading and writing on cutting-edge technological developments.

“Technology and Society”

Science and technology are the lynchpins of economic growth and prosperity. Over the past two centuries, humans have made great technological progress. The steam engine, electricity, automobiles, telephone, transistors, computers and the internet have carried us through several industrial revolutions and renewed cycles of economic prosperity. Nowadays, emerging technological fields such as nano, bio, information and cognitive technologies are opening up further doors for innovation beyond imaginable. However, there always has been evidence supporting both the benefits as well as perils of technology. For instance, fossil fuel engines reduced physical distances and enhanced industrial productivity but also led to global warming. The Internet offers great communications and exchange opportunities, at the same time creating social isolation and information privacy issues. The question is do technologies determine their consumption or is it the users who choose good or bad uses of otherwise neutral technologies? What is the role of users’ context in shaping up good or bad uses of technologies? The overarching focus of this course is thus familiarizing participants with the inter-twined nature of technology and society. A number of cases on the internet, social media, biotechnology, bio-ethics, and clean energy will demonstrate how technology and society shape each other.

Dr. Laura HsuDr. Laura Hsu

Dr. Hsu is an associate professor of Human Development and Human Services and has taught at Merrimack since 2012. She teaches Introduction to Human Development and Diversity, Social Justice & Ethics courses to first year students. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California-Berkeley and an Ed.D. in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“The Interaction of Genes and Environment in Our Lives”

How do genes and environment interact to determine personality and behavior, risk for mental health and physical conditions, and outcomes of trauma? How does the lifestyle or experiences of one generation impact the way genes function in subsequent generations? How does a pregnant mother’s lifestyle, her environment, or experiences influence some of the fetus’s genes to “turn on” or “turn off” and potentially impact the entire course of that child’s life? What control do we have over determining the traits and conditions of future offspring, and should there be limits to how much we can do that? How can genes be manipulated while we are alive to alter the course of a health condition, etc.? Why are identical twins (and other multiples) not physically “identical” in all ways? How are “nature” and “nurture” teased apart to understand the relative contribution to any given trait? These are questions that this course will attempt to answer through reading various articles and studies, watching documentaries, and listening to guest speakers. You do not need to have any prior knowledge of genetics to take this course.

Dr. Emma PolyakovDr. Emma Polyakov

Dr. Emma Polyakov teaches and conducts research on religious pluralism and intercultural relations. She is the author of three books—The Nun in the Synagogue: Judeocentric Catholicism in Israel (Penn State, 2020); Remembering the Future: The Experience of Time in Jewish and Christian Liturgy (Liturgical Press, 2015); and Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Interreligious Hermeneutics: Ways of Seeing the Religious Other (Brill-Rodopi, 2018)—and is currently completing two more books exploring religious perspectives on Jerusalem. She holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, an M.T.S from Boston University, and a B.A. from Bard College.

“Thinking Deeply: Is it Irrelevant?”

Dr. Polyakov’s course asks the enduring question “Is learning for learning’s sake irrelevant in today’s world?” It critically analyzes multiple perspectives on the value of thinking deeply and learning for the sake of learning, and explores the difference that this kind of learning can make in the lives of students today as well as in the greater society. This course examines the role of learning for the love of learning, through debating questions about the personal and societal value of studying the disciplines and topics generally addressed in a Liberal Arts education.

Dr. Dorie MansenDr. Dorie Mansen

Dr. Dorie Mansen serves as the Director of Austin Scholars Curriculum and is an assistant professor of the practice in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies. Dorie holds a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies/Hebrew Bible from Boston University, a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Boston University School of Theology, and a B.A. in Theology from Boston College. Dorie’s research examines death, burial and mourning ritual and ideology in diverse cultures, ranging from the ancient Near East to contemporary religious practice.

Fr. Dan Madden

Fr. Daniel Madden is a Catholic priest within the Order of St. Augustine. Fr. Dan works with the Austin Scholars as the Director of Formation and teaches the freshmen core courses of the Austin Scholars. He has previously served at Merrimack as part of the CARE team in the Office of Wellness.

“Who Am I?”

The enduring question of “Who am I?” encompasses several intersecting directions of exploration and reflection, including the concept of personhood, the intrinsically relational nature of human experience, and ideas about worth, dignity, mission and purpose. Theologians have long understood humanity as oriented toward God, made explicit in St. Augustine’s prayer: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” This course will ask how diverse understandings of humanity align with contemporary issues that arise when one considers the questions of identity. This section is offered as part of the Austin Scholars Program.