FYS Topics Archive

Seminar topics change every semester. Check out last semester's course options below!

Spring 2023

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  • A Life in Letters
    In a letter Isaac Newton informed Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” In a letter Pete Docter, award winning director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, admitted “our [Pixar] films don’t get finished, they just get released.” In a letter Clementine Churchill confessed to her “darling Winston” that “I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.” This course uses correspondence as a way to explore critical questions and issues in life. These epistolary conversations will provide an intimate look at the lives of correspondents and the stories that surround them. Those individual biographies and stories will, in turn, provide a refined lens to reflect on critical questions of life related to love, identity, and integrity, among others.


  • A Life Worth Living

    What is a life that is well-lived? What constitutes a “good life”? This course explores basic and fundamental questions about the meaning of human life and the human condition. To do so, our discussions will span a broad range of topics, texts and cultures. With the help of literature, philosophy, music, film, poetry and art, we will explore the process of self-discovery and self-understanding that is possible for all of us as students of the humanities.

  • Banned in the USA: The Rise of Book Censorship in America
    While the topic of censorship is not new, conversations about book banning and challenges to instructional materials in schools, libraries, and universities are on the rise in nearly every corner of our nation.   In this course, students will examine the history of book banning in the United States with special emphasis on the recent surge due to an intensely polarized political environment.  Students will explore both excerpts and full texts of several challenged books and will be encouraged to develop their own opinions.  Through discussion, readings, interviews, and writing, students will deconstruct this controversial topic through the lens of multiple stakeholders including students, teachers, school leaders, parents, policy makers, and themselves.  Finally, students will consider if, what, and how books contribute to inclusivity and belonging and what implications book banning may have on teaching and learning.
  • Business, Politics, and the Environment
    This FYS will examine the relationships between business, American politics, and environmental sustainability. Assignments and class discussions will consider the past, present, and possible futures of these relationships. Students will scrutinize common beliefs and language related to these controversial issues. Assignments include a project in which each student selects a company, researches its environmental impacts and political influence tactics, and writes an analysis of the company’s statements and actions related to environmental sustainability. Students should leave the course with a better understanding of what is required to make our society environmentally sustainable.
  • Crime and Punishment in Russian Literature and Film
    “Crime and Punishment in Russian Literature and Film” examines acts of transgression and retribution, two long-standing preoccupations in Russian culture. More specifically, this course investigates how Russians have explored the changing boundaries of propriety, criminality and wrongdoing since the early 19th century. An interdisciplinary course located at the nexus of literature, cinema and history, it examines a variety of texts—fictional, cinematic, even operatic—within their historical context. Close attention is paid to shifts in expression and representation between the imperial and Soviet periods and the (re)interpretation of texts over time. Attention is also paid to how these themes have been reinterpreted abroad outside of Russia.
  • Democracy in Crisis
    In this course we will try to understand the rise of illiberal trends and autocracies around the world. We will learn about the philosophical and moral underpinnings of democracy as well as how to objectively study its connection to a multiplicity of political, social, and economic outcomes. You will learn the difference between writing an impassioned argument in favor of/against a particular institutional arrangement and exploring the consequences of the same institutional arrangement using an objective systematic scientific approach.  We will also learn about democratic erosion, how to identify it and why it matters.
  • Devil in the Details: Microhistory & Historical Narrative
    Witches and heretics, religious prophets and confidence men, Native American captives and murdering mothers, cat massacres and slave conspiracies: these are the subjects of "microhistory," a distinctive approach to the study of the past that seeks to reveal broader forces of historical change through detailed stories of obscure individuals and unusual events. In this First-Year Seminar, students learn how scholars research and write these gripping historical narratives. We will probe beneath the grand narratives of conventional history textbooks and develop theoretical and methodological competencies in the subfield of cultural history. The seminar will provide opportunities to read and analyze a challenging array of primary texts, from newspapers to private journals to early American court records. Toward the end of the semester, students research and write their own microhistories based on rare archival sources documenting the lives of the first converts to Shakerism, one of the most unusual religious communities in American history.
  • Dining Out: The History of American Food and Foodways
    What does the history of eating tell us about who we are? How have dining rituals and restaurants changed over time? This course examines the range of social, cultural, and environmental influences that have shaped our dietary practices from seventeenth century to the present. We will be investigating the histories and memories of eating, focusing on the places and where and the occasions when we gather together to share a meal. Class readings, writing, and independent research will draw on a variety of texts (historical cookbooks, menus, food memoirs, gastronomic treatises) employing various methods (historical analysis, participant-observation, interviews, and culinary practice) to address the larger questions of how eating together shapes and is shaped by our social values and shared identities. This course has a CBL/Service Learning component required of all students.
  • Ethics in International Relations
    This course examines pressing ethical and moral questions in the arena of international affairs. The main areas of focus will be international conflict, international economics, and intrastate conflict. Course content will include a variety of primary texts, scholarly articles, podcasts, and films revolving around important ethical debates. Students will write analytical papers, co-lead discussions, and participate in in-class debates, all designed to help develop the skills that will help them succeed in the rest of their time at the University.
  • Ever After: Transformations in Fairy Tales
    In this course, we will explore the fairy tale from its folk origins to its modern re-writings. Over the course of the semester, our focus will be transformation, a phenomenon that occurs both within fairy tales themselves and in the ways that these stories take new shape and new meaning in the hands of different authors in different cultural contexts. Our investigation will be framed by readings from scholars of fairy-tale literature. The final project asks students to conduct in-depth analyses of modern rewritings of fairy tales.
  • Exploitation: Causes, Effects, and Responses
    This course explores the phenomenon of exploitation, why we exploit, the effects of exploitation, and potentially responsive or preventative measures to exploitation.  Throughout human history individuals and societies have used power, force, and coercion to extract value from natural resources, animals, and other human beings for their own benefit.  These practices have enabled human and social development, but also caused extreme suffering on a massive scale, and they may imperil life as we know it on this planet in the foreseeable future.  This course will investigate the psychology, economics, and religion of exploitation, how it functions, and how it is justified or rationalized.  It will also look at responses and possible solutions.
  • Faith and Difference in America
    Religious faith is central to the daily life and identity of a majority of the population in the United States. As a result of globalization, individuals and communities with diverse worldviews - both religious and secular - interact more closely than ever before, with results ranging from insightful dialogue to violent discord. Furthermore, religious convictions shape debate about a range of policies in domestic affairs, leading at times to unified action for peace and justice, and at other times to rancor and mistrust. This course will investigate these tensions in light of students’ own commitments and beliefs, those of others, and the increasingly diverse society in which we live.
  • Films of the 1940s: Paranoia, Patriotism, or Propaganda
    The students will be asked to read films as cultural reflections of the times in which they are created. This reading will include analysis of narrative as well as cinemagraphic techniques used in the creation of movies. The course will be driven by the question, Can a popular medium such as film be a primary source for understanding history?
  • For the Love of Books
    This course explores the past, present, and future role of books as a significant part of the world’s cultural heritage. A book is a remarkable piece of technology, one currently challenged by changes in how we use and imagine books so that it’s future may be uncertain. As a transmitter of literacy, knowledge, and culture, a book’s impact is profound, but as an object of worth, desire, or artistic beauty, its value extends beyond the text and even the printed page. Exploring the multifaceted history of the book, students engage with how they interact with books as well as develop an understanding of the book’s complexity, artistry, cultural and technological effects on society and culture.
  • Great Filmmakers of the World
    In "Great Filmmakers of the World," students will watch films from different countries and different time periods with which they are likely not familiar. The course will focus on films from all over the world. One of the central goals of the course is to expose students to different cultures and to explore complex social, economic, and political issues. Students will learn about specific countries and historical moments through the stories told and characters portrayed in each film. For instance, we might discuss filmmaking and censorship in Iran, the issue of migration from a West African perspective, or the human cost of the war against terror. At the same time, we will think about cinema as an aesthetic endeavor in which producing images is an intentional act that exists in parallel to but also independently from specific stories. Students will learn how to read images closely and will be encouraged to think of filmmaking as an art form. Students will develop close-reading skills by analyzing films in groups during class time, and individually in academic essays. Each film screening will be accompanied by reading assignments that will give students the chance to observe how scholars and film critics have analyzed the film and to critique their ideas. Finally, this course will be writing intensive. Students will write often and will have the opportunity to practice academic writing as well as other forms of writing (responses, creative writing, project-based writing assignments).
  • Health Care Policy and Politics in the U.S. and Around the World
    The American health care system – or lack thereof – is one of the factors that most clearly distinguishes America’s public policy from that in other countries.  This course will look at how the U.S. health care system compares to those in other affluent countries in terms of access, cost, and quality and examine the major ways that health care systems are organized and funded.  While some countries have "socialized medicine," many others have systems of universal health care with a much larger role for private insurance than in the U.S.   The course will explore why countries developed different types of systems with a focus on why such a fragmented and expensive system emerged in the U.S.
  • Heroes and Villians
    This course explores representations of heroism and villainy from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Students will explore scholarly research on issues of heroism such as leadership, morality, resilience, courage, empathy, meaning, purpose, altruism, hope, human growth, cooperation, spirituality, health, transformation, and character strengths.  Students will also analyze representations of the causes and consequences of evil.
  • History of Eugenics
    This course explores the global history of eugenics, which proposed a variety of policies for supposedly improving the hereditary quality of “race” by controlling human reproduction. Armed with pseudo-scientific evidence, self-proclaimed eugenicists asserted that most problems such as criminality, alcoholism, pauperism, prostitution, insanity, and others were transmitted genetically. They aimed to reduce the numbers of the so-called “defective,” or dysgenic (cacogenic) people while pushing to increase the number of eugenic people, or those presumed to have “good genes.” We examine how eugenics nearly became a global movement, its connections to other ideologies, and the public and scientific responses it triggered.
  • Human Trafficking: Myth or Scourge?
    Human trafficking is a social justice issue that has become prominently addressed in the media and through a variety of academic disciplines. However, human trafficking as a construct is embedded in conflicting and problematic paradigms and discourses that manipulate the concepts in political, economic and social ways that may perpetuate the underlying structures and issues causing human trafficking. From humanitarian and development perspectives, to law enforcement, education, policy and social science orientations, the varying discourses related to human trafficking will be explored and students will grapple with challenging questions through a writing intensive approach to inquiry.
  • Is $40 a Month for Insulin Too Much?
    How do we decide whether the new $35 monthly cap for insulin payments that is part of the Inflation Reduction Act is the right policy? In this course we will examine how government policies are applied to markets through programs such as drug price caps, student loan forgiveness, and carbon taxes. Our examination will focus on the tension between equity and efficiency as ways of evaluating policy outcomes and will include an exploration of definitions and interpretations of these two concepts. You will gain insight into current policy disagreements and into the interactions between markets and government policies. Familiarity with the principles of microeconomics is recommended but not required.
  • Knowing & Choosing in the Face of Adversity
    Through the course of one’s life there are crossroads, times when decisions have to be made.  There is a moment in time when you can take one path or the other.  At the time, you have no idea where either path will ultimately lead.  Which is the choice that is best?  Do you follow your heart? Your gut? Your brain?  Do what others tell you [family, friends, boss]?  What society dictates?  We make choices every day.  Some of them end up being life changers.  As we look back at those moments in time and try to put all the pieces together, do we still wonder if we made the right choice? How do we know?  This semester’s journey is to examine how others have made choices in the face of adversity and uncertainty.
  • Latin American Politics and Film
    Prior to the 1980s, democracy had a difficult time taking root in Latin America. Most countries in the region oscillated between authoritarianism and restricted versions of democracy. In this class we will explore development, democracy, authoritarianism, and regime transitions in the case of Chile. The course will push you to ask big and important questions about the political world, including: what is democracy?; why do democratic regimes sometimes break down?; what brings about democratic transitions?; how do democratic regimes address the human rights violations carried out during dictatorships?; and how can states in the global periphery build stable and representative democracies?
  • Medieval England and France in Conflict
    Medieval England and France in Conflict examines medieval political, socioeconomic, and cultural life through the lens of three epochal historical phenomena:  the Norman Conquest of England (1066), the rising and waning of the so-called Angevin Empire (1154-1214), and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Among topics to be addressed are The Final Viking Raid?; Domesday England; The Medieval “F” Word:  Feudalism;  An Empire or Not an Empire?; Eleanor of Aquitaine as Angevin Linchpin; Wars and Parliaments; A Military Revolution?; Joan of Arc, Christine de Pizan, and Female Agency and Voice; Are We Anglo-Saxon or Are We English?; Imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and Historical Nomenclature and Periodization.
  • Modern American Human Rights Lawyers: Leadership and Community Service
    Many lawyers become  leaders and serve in roles ranging from heads of local civic and religious institutions, to President of the United States. This course explores the relationship between the law and leadership. It will challenge students to refine what leadership means to them in theory as well as provide practical experiences for reflection. The specific focal point for such thought and writing will be roles that lawyers have played in addressing social justice issues in America. The course proceeds on the explicit premise that leadership involves service to others for the common good.
  • Naked and Afraid
    (Course description not available at this time)
  • Neuroscience of Photography
    What is a photograph? How does photography impact our memory? These are the types of big questions this course will explore through the lens of neuroscience. By knowing more about the workings of the brain in general and of the visual brain in particular, one can attempt to develop the outlines of a theory of aesthetics that is biologically based. This course uses the core concepts of visual neuroscience and photography to give students the tools to critically think and write about the images they capture, see, and/or share.
  • Open Water
    This course critically examines European and North American representations of the sea, its peoples, animals, and artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries. During these centuries, Western sea presence would produce horrific episodes of conquest, enslavement, and colonization. It would also engender scenes of global diversity, technological and medical innovation, and, for some, radical liberation. As we will see, this dichotomy was imperfectly captured by the privileged pens of Western seafarers (almost invariably white and male). One of this seminar’s chief aims, therefore, is to help you develop the critical reading and writing skills required to engage with these difficult texts—and the many more you may encounter in your college careers—in productive ways. But the ocean and its literature can also be sources of personal reflection. As Melville says, “We see ourselves in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.” And so, this course also hopes to provide you with several opportunities to search for your own reflections in the watery parts of the world; to identify the stories, practices, and characters that stir and challenge and call you to action.
  • Race and Law
    This seminar introduces laws and judicial decisions that have defined racial status as the basis for political and social order in the United States. We address issues of citizenship, enslavement, segregation, and mass incarceration. We will read landmark judicial decisions to identify core political visions and the constitutional arguments that advance them. These decisions were contested at every point, generating persistent, conflicting visions of American democracy. Class members will be required to speak and write about values and policies that matter to American democracy. Moreover, we will consider how our own values and experiences are shaped by historical contests over race matters in the U.S. We may follow a Koru Mindfulness curriculum during part of the semester.
  • Reading the Past: Epics, Legends, and History
    What do fantastical stories of heroes and lovers, travelers and monsters tell us about Antiquity and the Middle Ages? This seminar challenges students to consider the meanings of "history", "fact", "fiction", "literature", “epic”, when using parts or all of the following texts: Boccaccio’s Decameron, Gilgamesh, Virgil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, Arthurian Romances of Crétien de Troyes, and Dante’s Inferno. A central question will be how historians can use narratives to understand the cultures we study. In essence, the course asks students to consider how their understanding of the past has been and is being constructed.
  • Rewriting the Bible
    Biblical stories are more than just religious texts; they are literary and artistic creations that have rich cultural afterlives in a wide array of retellings. This course explores ancient and modern rewritings of biblical stories that expand them, change points of view, and fill in narrative gaps, all in an attempt to tell a new story that is filled with new meaning. By exploring a variety of retellings — novels, films, poetry, legends, music and art — we will analyze how rewritten biblical stories construct new political, social, and theological worlds as they draw on and depart from the originals.
  • Say What? Exploring Second Language Acquisition
    There are many aspects involved in learning a second language. How do humans learn a second language? What instructional approach and strategies should be employed and what teaching strategies support second language acquisition? How does one unpack the fine granularity of phonetics, syntax, and discourse within the context of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)? How is American English distinct? What role does socio-linguistics play in second language acquisition? Given the interconnectedness of language and culture, how does one teach the socio-cultural context along with TEFL and what should be taught? Students will study how languages are learned, and how second languages are taught. The class will investigate important aspects of English language acquisition including general linguistic concepts, applied socio-linguistics, and the socio-cultural context of language teaching.
  • Spilt Selves: Growing Up Bilingual in the Graveyard of Languages
    In this first-year seminar, we focus on the experience of growing up bi-/multilingual in the context of the United States, whose reputation for monolingualism and generational language attrition have led researchers to call it "a graveyard of languages." To explore this topic and develop a more profound understanding of the challenges (and benefits) of juggling multiple languages in a society with paradoxical attitudes towards bilingualism, we will learn about child language acquisition, bilingual education, and language loss, among many other related areas. Using this knowledge, we will analyze the lived experiences of US bilinguals of different linguistic and social backgrounds.
  • The Art of the Picture Book
    What makes a successful picture book in the 21st century? Students will learn design elements, how to evaluate them on their own and in conjunction with the text, and how the picture book can be an aesthetic production. Humorous, inspiring, or even subversive, picture books also support recreation, informational needs, and making sense of one’s world. Students will consider numerous issues related to picture books, including audience, format, representation, marketing, controversial content, and censorship. Engagement with a variety of picture books, critical reading, and research will lead to free writing, critical reviews, academic writing, and project-based writing.
  • The Effects of Maritime Strategy on International Business
    The Effects of Maritime Strategy on International Relations examines development of strategic sea power, and how it has been used throughout history. Students develop foundational knowledge through discussion and directed readings. The current status of international sea power, and its anticipated role in future international interactions are examined. Students perform library research and analysis, and are assessed through an annotated bibliography, literature review and argument paper.
  • The Island of Tears: Film Representation of Migrations from and to Italy
    This course is a survey of film representations (fictional or not) of the historical migrations of Italians to other countries or other Italian regions, as well as the more contemporary phenomenon of immigration from other countries to Italy. Students will watch films spanning from the silent era to recent years and will read poems, short stories, essays, and academic articles related to this topic, focusing on historical, psychological, and sociological considerations. In particular, the course intends to call students’ attention to the framing of immigrants as "others" in order to serve society’s economic and political purposes.
  • The Longest Voyage: Magellan and the Pacific
    This class will commemorate the 5th centennial of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that accomplished the first circumnavigation of the world (August 1519-September 1522). Students will learn about this epic voyage and its protagonists and reflect on its significance for the history of navigation and technology, the so-called age of discovery, the European western expansion into the Pacific, the development of transoceanic commerce, and the origins of what we now call globalization. The topic is timely, riveting, relevant and should be meaningful to all students interested in the history of travel and in history as travel.
  • The Power and Prejudice of Language
    In this course students read and discuss linguists’ descriptions of language practices and critical analyses of language prejudices, and then they apply the same principals of analysis to new cases. Students develop an awareness of language practices and critically analyze popular notions about language, learning to think about language as a linguist. By the end of the course students understand how everyone speaks dialects and code switches between dialects, language is used to construct individual and group identities, language standards are linguistically arbitrary, language is wielded as a tool of power, and language prejudice is ubiquitous, destructive, and yet socially acceptable.
  • The Power to Change the World
    This course will provide students with the opportunity to explore the impact sport has ignited in regars to social change throughout history. Nelson Mandela so famously quoted, "Sport as the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does." This course will investigate how sport is a major catalyst for greater societal change in the global world. Students will critically engage through discussion, text, films, and speeches, in an effort to interrogate the intersections between sport, power, inequality, and freedom.
  • The Rise of the Crips: Disability and Identity in the United States
    This course will explore the history of those with disabilities in the United States. The course will explore the rise of the disability rights movement and examines the similarities and differences between the disability rights movement and other social movements in the United States.
  • The Unexplainable: Abstraction, Surrealism, and the Absurd
    Language, at its root, is a representational system that makes it easier for people to define the world around them. It provides structure and clarity. Literature, as an artistic deployment of language, similarly strives to illuminate the human situation. So how do writers respond when they face an idea or dynamic that cannot be easily rendered in conventional language? Or to flip that question, why do writers sometimes take events or images that seem straightforward and make them opaque? This course will examine a variety of texts—from the magical to the zany to the downright confusing—in a conversation about why some literature takes special pains to “tell all the truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson). While our primary focus will be written texts, we will also refer to other disciplines (visual art, film, etc.) as we grapple with these questions. 
  • Trauma/Resilience
    What is trauma? This course will focus on theoretical underpinnings, research, and applied approaches to psychological trauma. In addition, we will examine the role of identity and culture as it relates to the presentation of trauma and resilience considering macro and micro-level variables. The course will lay the groundwork for exploring how human phenomenon, psychological processes, and cultural lenses can shape the way we experience significant events that impact the way we see ourselves, others, and the world.
  • Vampires
    This course is an introduction to the mysterious world of vampires and fantastic creatures in Slavic culture. We analyze various types of written (folktales, fiction, news, academic studies) and visual (films, cartoons, paintings) texts to explore central questions: What do legends of mythical creatures tell us about the society in which they exist? What societal values are displayed through them? What can we learn not only about these societies, separated from us temporally and geographically, but also about ourselves? We discuss multiple regions from the Slavic world, including present-day Ukraine, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Poland, but all materials have English translations.
  • Where is Cuba?
    Cuba has recently appeared on a US flight map. To be Cuban does not mean that you are an American actor, or the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Cuba is a country, geographically so close, but philosophically and politically so distant. This course will explore the history and culture of Cuba through its music and dance. It will also explore your attitude and beliefs toward Cuba and Cubans. We will read, write, listen, dance and eat Salsa! We will also study and listen to first-hand recordings and videos of Cuba exploring Latin jazz – a blending of American jazz with Cuban rhythms. At the completion of this course, you will know exactly where Cuba is!
  • Why do we build? Why should we care?
    We will explore the various roles architecture, building, cities, and design play in shaping how we live, work, play and interact with one another. This semester our class will participate in the East End Cemetery Collaboratory with projects exploring not only the cemetery, but also the city of Richmond. Questions we will address include: What effect does the built environment have on the way we live and how we understand ourselves? What is the role of the architect or planner in shaping society? How can good design affect change?
  • Why YA? Young Adult Fiction and Social Change
    This course invites students to think about how power works in young adult fiction, a fiction that is centrally concerned with social institutions (politics, school, family, religion, identity politics, etc.) and with social change. Often maligned or ignored, YA fiction grapples not only with issues of self-definition and development, but with contemporary politics, social movements, and current events. What can we learn—about power, about social relations, and about social change—from close attention to the literature of adolescence in the early 21st century?
  • Wrongful Convictions in Modern America
    This course is a topical, multi-layered examination of wrongful convictions produced in modern America. We examine how racism and class inequities have driven this structural injustice. Mass incarceration is analyzed along with the historical dynamics that created it. We critically interrogate what constitutes a "wrongful" conviction to go beyond cases of factual innocence. The readings are meant to invite a deep and exacting exploration of the role racism plays in how we police, arrest, convict, and punish people in the United States.