Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

First Contact: Encounters with the Unexplained

Instructor: Christopher Laursen

First contact occurs when an individual or group of people initially encounter someone or something. This may be someone or something known to them, that they have heard about, but had not yet encountered personally - with unanticipated elements and results. Or it may be someone or something completely unexpected. The focus in this course is to combine a cultural and personal examination of first contacts and how they transform individuals and societies.

After being introduced to the topic, students will examine and analyze four themes in first contact narratives:

  • first contact between indigenous Americans and Europeans
  • first contact with a new species (e.g. dinosaur fossils)
  • first contact with a spiritual being (e.g. Marian apparitions)
  • first contact with extraterrestrial beings.

Each week will feature a set of original accounts alongside analytical and theoretical essays or chapters, as well as films, art, and creative work. Students will discuss each of these themes to better understand the human dynamics in first contact, and how they affect culture, psychology, and ideas. How can we better understand human nature through first contacts? How can we better understand how our own lives unfold through first contact events?

A Self-Reflexive Analysis
To start, students identify their own “first contact” with someone or something unexpected in their own lives. We all have them in various forms.

To introduce students to the concept, various questions will be explored. What is a first contact with the unexpected in broader perspective? What constitutes the “unexpected” within frameworks of what is known versus what is unknown? How does the first contact become a mythological or transformative moment for individuals and societies? How does it change lives?

Drawing from what students learn in each week’s module, they will build a series of shared reflection pieces on how a first contact event in their own lives shaped their knowledge, views, actions, and interactions.

Reflection pieces will start at the end of the first week with each student’s narration of their own first contact event. As the class moves through each week’s theme, piece by piece, they will build an analysis of their first contact in relation to what they are learning, analyzing, and discussing. This will follow Jeffrey J. Kripal’s model of realization and authorization around extraordinary experiences.

Students will conclude the five-week course with a summary analysis of how their “first contact” event shaped the course of their life in relation to what they learned in the modules and discussions. The goal of the course is to intensively write self-reflexive, analytical pieces that relate to a larger human context. In other words, to understand how individual lives are shaped, including one’s own life, in relation to the larger world and human nature.

Most readings will be provided online. Any books will be available as ebooks or print books, and that list will be e-mailed to registered students and posted online at least four weeks before the course commences. There will be films available to stream online via UNCW or to rent online.

Last Updated: January 8, 2019