December 2012

When I found out that we would be brewing beer in our freshman seminar, I was obviously quite doubtful. I mean, this is college so I didn’t really know what rules we had to abide by, but I definitely wasn’t going to question it. The fact that USC was even allowing this made me love my school even more. I had always romanticized the image of beer brewing with giant bubbling vats, clouds of steam, and taste testing. I also didn’t know that beer brewing is a rather common amateur hobby! It was fascinating to hear our beer expert’s stories about his adventures in brewing, and his opinions of different kinds of beers from different countries. The actual experiment was easy enough (I suppose we didn’t do much of the hard work); we toasted some grain and allowed it to simmer in hot water, like tea. The next thing we knew, we had pots full of brownish liquid! After delivering samples into test tubes and using that in petri dishes to test for bacteria, we waited another few weeks before it had fully fermented. The beer was not bad upon taste; a little bitter, but all around pretty tasty. I’m very thankful we added carbonation to it. The experiment left me with a greater understanding of what beer brewing is really like (and that it’s a lot easier than I thought!), and a greater appreciation of the different tastes it can have. I wish we were able to understand the fermentation process further and see how carbonation was added, but otherwise I was pretty pleased with the outcome of our brewing. 

-Isha Kawatra

I returned to my kindergarten days when we made mud bricks in our freshman seminar at the beginning of the semester- I was always one of those kids that liked playing in the grass and dirt, building ‘houses’ for ladybugs and things like that. When we were initially given our materials, I was a little confused about how we were supposed to use each resource (since when did bricks have hay in them?). However, I quickly jumped in to help mix dirt, clay, and water for the main cement of the bricks. Someone suggested we take off our shoes and churn the mixture with our feet to make the process easier; not only did this keep our backs from breaking but also made the experience way more fun! While a few of us enjoyed stomping in the cool mush, others laid out hay or hammered together a stencil for us to use. Once we determined the correct ratio of dirt to hay to water, we allowed some fellow students to scoop the mixture up in shovels and deliver it to the stencil, where others packed it together. I think overall this exercise required more teamwork than any of the other ones- we needed input from every member such that it became somewhat of an assembly line so that we got our products out faster. By the end of it, we also had stamps on our bricks and had shimmied them out of the stencils. We had around sixteen mud bricks that we could have used for a potential wall, fort, or even igloo! Though this experiment required more clean-up and definitely a shower, it made me realize that ancient peoples often lived in communities because they needed strengths and help from others in order to be successful. It also made me realize that even boring tasks can be made fun- they didn’t need TVs or iPods or laptops to entertain themselves. I mean, who needs television when you have mud to stomp around in?

-Isha Kawatra

I love bread- I could try gourmet breads, butters, spreads, and cheeses for weeks and be content. Carbohydrates are my weakness; that’s why when I heard we were baking fresh bread in our freshman seminar course, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I was surprised to find that we were essentially making pan-fried bread; the funny thing is, I’m even more familiar with this quicker baking method because of my Indian heritage. I’ve grown up watching my grandmother’s quick and nimble fingers poking and flipping naan on a hot pan, secretly being amazed at her seemingly heat-resistant skin. Mixing the actual dough was easy enough (I bake cookies and brownies quite often at home), but determining when to flip the bread and how to avoid burns proved to be more difficult. Unfortunately for my future self, I enjoy quite a bit of salt in my diet, so I insisted that our group add salt to our dough (which, we all agreed, turned out to be a good idea). I was delighted to find that our bread was actually very tasty! We experimented further by smothering it in olive oil, caramelizing sugar on top, or drizzling honey over it, all of which worked pretty well. We also tried different shapes (I even made a pretzel), that were not as successful but definitely made the experiment more fun. All in all, the bread-making exercise was an intellectually and physically filling experiment (that ended up being my lunch for the day… freshman 15 here I come!). I have no complaints about the class- it was obviously my favorite one all semester!

– Isha Kawatra

            For our second-to-last adventure into the everyday processes of prehistoric times, we were taught the ancient art of drop spindle spinning. Not really anything like the fairytale spinning wheels of Sleeping Beauty, this method of spinning is far more practical in that it is portable – one can walk around and do other things at the same time as they are spinning.  Therefore, while one is walking to market, or walking to fetch water, or walking to the next village, one can keep spinning and keep spinning, preventing a loss of valuable time.

            At first we were all taught the same method using the white, pre-carded and pre-washed wool, I decided I wanted to try something different, something to add to my long, lumpy, uneven strand of yarn I had spun. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m not Rumpelstiltskin – there were no strands of gold following from my spindle. The second project I attempted, however, was started by carding untreated, unwashed wool.  The process was very rhythmic, pulling the combs against each other in order to untangle and clean the wool, and slowly the messy wad of wool between the combs became smooth to the touch; it was ready for spinning. As I ran the wool between my fingers, pulling and thinning it in preparation for spinning, I could feel the lanolin coating my fingers, and I could smell the sheep in the wool – the smell of livestock, and hay, and dusty barns and wide open grassy pastures. I decided then that I didn’t want to spindle-spin the wool, but that I wanted to hand spin it. Which is just what I did; I carefully twisted again and again the rope between my fingers, until all the wool was spun into a thread as long as my first. Oddly enough, this second hand-spun thread turned out far better then my spindle-spun thread had.

~Storm Nylen

As this was the first task we were given in the First Year Seminar, I was very eager to become successful.  As we split into groups outside under the hot sun, I told myself that I would be making fire that day.  Initially, rubbing the stick was not too bad.  As time wore on though, my body, especially my hands, began to feel its effects.  The most discouraging thing about trying to make fire in this fashion is that we would be so close to success.  After long periods of hard work my group would begin to smell the smokiness and eventually we would see smoke, only to become disappointed as our dry materials never caught flame.  Eventually as all the other groups experienced failure we teamed up to come up with the best possible plan.  Regardless of this teamwork, we did not get a flame in the end result.  

I think this was a really awesome way to start out the semester because when I think of ancient human survival, I think of fire.  The discovery of fire is one of the most critical moments in our species and I have to realize that they had to work to get it.  People in those days didn’t get to light a match or flick a lighter to get a desired flame, it was much more complicated than that.  I know in the future I will try the stick technique again under ideal conditions just to say I successfully built a fire with my hands.  That would be really cool.  


– Alex Brauser

When I walked into class that day, a peculiar smell hit me.  I eventually realized that it was wool, and some of it had not been processed or wash yet.  Regardless, as the class progressed, I learned a lot that day.  Firstly, getting wool from the fluffy  mess that we usually know it to a thin piece of yarn was a challenge.  It really was a matter of trial and error for me because I could not quite catch on in the beginning.  Eventually, the very nice ladies taught me how to use my drop spindle and i began to get the hang of it.  It really wasn’t so hard once I learned how to do it and I found myself spinning yard for the rest of the class.  

It was also very interesting listening to the professionals talk about the different types of materials for spinning and giving us a historical breakdown of how spinning came to be.  As I think about it, it really is amazing how people back in the day were able to make their own clothes.  We really take it for granted today with factories and everything, but they really worked hard in those times.  

This freshman seminar was truly an amazing experience.  I am very glad I signed up for it as I was so excited to come to class each Tuesday and almost as eager to return to my dorm to tell my friends what I just did.  From making fire to drinking beer, Learning From Human Survival was an amazing First Year Seminar.  Thank you to everyone who was involved, it was a great semester!


– Alex Brauser

Over the course of this semester, the FSEM-180 seminar students have performed a variety of tasks that mimicked the methods of human survival used in the past. From baking bread, to making clothing, to building oil lamps and forming mud bricks, we’ve sampled living a simpler life. And yet, though the tools and methods were simpler, the work was far harder. “White Collar” is not a valid description for any job that ancient humans would have performed. And, at the same time we were spending hours grinding barely enough grain to make a Ritz Cracker, we were living the rest of our week secure in the modern life of the 21st century. You simply can’t simulate the urgency of real survival and still have the University allow the course to be offered.

But, these limitations hardly detracted from the experience of the course. In fact, they served to emphasize the stark contrast between ancient living and modern humanity. Making cheese came with neat foil packets of ingredients, plastic jugs of milk, and printed books with guidance and illustration on how to make the cheese turn out exactly as intended. We used oil both for our lamps and baking (frying?) bread, yet never came within 100 yards of an actual whole olive. The oil was delivered in glass bottles with glossy labels depicting pastoral fields of olive trees instead. Looking back, it’s truly remarkable that there is a modern human race in light of all the work that had to be done to stay alive and healthy in the past.

One of my personal favorite TV shows is Jericho, a show about the struggles of a midwestern town totally cut off from the 21st century after a series of nuclear attacks decimates 21st century America. With the world outside gone, and uncertainty the only common feature of every day, how would civilization keep itself afloat? It’s a sobering thought- even the fictional town of Jericho, with a scant few thousand residents in the nation’s “breadbasket” region, suffered loss of life and tragic consequences. What would happen to a city Los Angeles, with it’s towering skyscrapers of people living and working, relying on trucks of goods and legions of workers all around the globe to provide the basics necessary to life, if the outside world were suddenly wiped off the map? Tragically, even in a scenario where everyone was in perfect harmony and working for the good of each other, the population would be downsized drastically due to the forces of nature, the environment, disease, and hunger.

Over thousands of years, we’ve built for ourselves a civilization from the very dust into gleaming skyscrapers of technology. No one in the FSEM-180 class would conclude that living as ancient humans did would be sustainable for modern humans, and yet in every other course (especially in classes with an environmental focus) we’re taught how modern civilization is not sustainable. Our government spending, our consumer culture, our dependence on oil, and our love of the dollar menu are all going to be our downfall, we’re told. And thus, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, unable to return to the lives which our ancestors lived, and our future filled with danger on every side. Nothing can stay the way it is, and we can’t go back to the way we were. I think this is the most valuable lesson that could ever be taught to a first year student at USC.

– John Timms

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