FYS Topics Archive

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

Spring 2023

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  • 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.

  • Apocalypse Culture
    Why are Americans so preoccupied with fantasies of apocalypse? What is an apocalypse, for that matter? What do we really mean when we describe some event as “apocalyptic”? Does an apocalypse have to be a religious event? And if so, why is the apocalypse often invoked to describe natural disasters (like the flood in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina), global warming (as in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren), wars, economic crises (like the financial collapse of 2008), epidemics (like AIDS), and terrorism?  This first-year seminar will explore the figure of the apocalypse and its place within American history and culture. We will consider how it has been imagined and is continually reimagined within different contexts. We will survey a variety of apocalyptic representations, beginning with the New England Puritans and continuing to the present moment. We will read a Protestant sermon, nineteenth-century short fiction, and a variety of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature. We may screen a film and a television episode, explore a comic book, and maybe even listen to some apocalyptic music. By examining the apocalypse within these diverse contexts, we will establish a better understanding of what is at stake when the apocalypse is invoked and why it has enjoyed a central presence in America’s cultural imagination.
  • Athletes of Piety
    Reconstructs the world of asceticism in late antique Egypt. Asceticism is an extreme and at times bizarre lifestyle of severe self-discipline. Abstaining from food, sex, and sleep, monastic practitioners sought eternal life. The barren deserts of Egypt became a fertile ground for an organized ascetic movement, called monasticism, that gained in popularity between ca. 300 C.E. and ca. 800 C.E. Students work on projects connecting historical asceticism to our contemporary world by focusing on various practices and phenomena, for example, living off grid, desertification, minimalism, survivalism, quest for immortality, dopamine fasting, mindfulness, or social distancing during a pandemic.
  • 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.
  • Capitalism and Its Discontents
    This course will consider how philosophers, fiction writers, social reformers, economists, and ordinary people have understood, promoted, opposed, and sought to reform capitalism since the eighteenth century. Focused on the history of the United States, the course will encourage students to think about the social and political implications of capitalist and anti-capitalist ideologies. Readings will examine inequality, work, gender roles, meritocracy, and class and racial hierarchies in the past and today. Authors include Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Booker T. Washington, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charlie Chaplin, John Maynard Keynes, Rose and Milton Friedman.
  • Crime in America
    In this course, our topic will be “Crime in America.” We will investigate the cultural function of the crime narrative in America by examining fictional and actual representations of criminals in novels, films, newspapers, and cultural myths. In decoding these texts, we will explore the shifting modes in which we have understood or categorized criminals and crimes.
  • Dining Out
    Everybody eats, but not everyone goes out to eat. Restaurants are places of convenience and celebration; they’re also sites of work and exchange. This course examines the restaurant as its own character in literature, art, and film, from cafeterias to cafés and fast food to fine dining. We’ll look at the transformation of restaurants from medieval cookshops into public eating establishments as well as the rise of contemporary restaurant culture. Course materials will include visual media such as film and fine art, novels, short stories, nonfiction essays and articles, and firsthand observation of Richmond’s culinary scene.
  • Dreams and Islam

    This course explores how Islam makes sense of dreams and waking visions.  We consider how dreams and visions relate to God, prophecy, truth, the future, the afterlife, and the end of time.  We examine what roles visions and dreams play in the political, social, and devotional dimensions of Islamic societies.

  • Entrepreneurship & Innovation
    A central logic driving innovation is captured thus “if we don’t change what we offer the world (products and services) and how we create and deliver them, we risk being overtaken by others who do” (Tidd and Bessant 2015). Reflecting upon this logic, in this First Year Seminar, we take both critical and pragmatic approaches in dissecting the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation in ways that allow students to engage in discourses about entrepreneurship, innovation, and development. Beyond examining the conceptual perspectives and theoretical approaches about entrepreneurship and innovation students are asked to think about what constitutes a ‘good’, ‘fair’, and ‘sustainable’ entrepreneurship in the context of local and global challenges confronting humanity today (the Anthropocene epoch) all in pursuit of ‘survival.’
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Geek Chic: Investigating Nerd Culture
    As Andrew Harrison of the The Guardian observed in 2013, “From superhero movies to techy sitcoms to captains of industry, geeks have been running the show for years.”  If you have ever been interested in “geek culture” products and activities such as D&D, Star Trek, Eurogaming, anime/manga, and cosplay, here is your chance to study that community.  This course explores the cultural phenomenon of “geek chic” through the lens of cultural studies.  Students will learn about geek culture by participating in it and by interviewing members of the culture, comparing personal experiences to the existing research on the topic.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood and the Asian American Imagination
    This course explores the (under)representation and contribution of Asian Americans to Hollywood from the silent era to the digital age by tracing historically how Asian Americans enter the Hollywood imagination and how they are (mis/under)represented. As Asian Americans develop a voice and visual presence in Hollywood, how do they imagine, represent, and perform themselves as Asian Americans on and off-screen, speaking to Hollywood and its global audience? Assigned films include documentary and fiction films about various journeys from Asia to America and various journeys of becoming Asian Americans.
  • 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.
  • Lost in Translation
    Translation may appear straightforward, but it has many applications and meanings. In this course, we will explore how translation affects communication across languages, cultures, and time. We will investigate how translation attends to linguistic nuance, social mores, cultural values, historical understanding, political organization, and hierarchical power relations. Where do we see cohesion and collision in cross-cultural and cross-linguistic encounters? What can intentional mistranslation reveal about social values? How are translators and interpreters perceived under conditions of colonization and conflict? What are the goals of translation? How can translation increase our appreciation for the connections between language, culture, and history?
  • Making Meaningful Space
    This seminar will focus on the spatial dimensions of the world in which we live. Students will learn various ways to analyze space and to reflect on the sensory aspects of embodied experience. Questions we will address include: How does the configuration of space influence our thinking, our behaviors, our feelings?  In what ways does it convey a sense of welcome or exclusion?  How do spatial policies and practices help to create (or inhibit) a sense of community? a sense of identity?  What role does the practice of story-telling and myth-making play in the creation of space and place?  In what ways do spaces themselves tell stories and reveal their histories? We will engage with literature, theatre, and media to explore stories of lived experiences in two settler colonial spaces – South Africa and the United States of America – to understand the forces that shaped and continue to shape our world.  We will consider Katherine McKittrick’s observation that “we are all implicated in the production of space, and how geography—in its various formations—is integral to social struggles.”
  • Making Poverty History
    In 2015, the United Nations declared that its top priority in the new millennium would be to end poverty by 2030. Many commentators applauded the UN’s ambition, but the pledge raised questions about what poverty was, how it was measured, and whether it could truly be ended. This course takes on these questions by exploring the history of the poverty idea in the work and activism of moral crusaders, social reformers, scientists, politicians, and humanitarians. We will work with primary sources—novels, manifestos, music, film—to uncover the possibilities and limits of global initiatives to end poverty, past and present.
  • Meaning and Value
    Have you ever wondered what makes a person’s life go well? This course is a quest to identify the features of a good life and gain some insight on how to improve our own lives by, for instance, instilling our lives with greater meaning. Some more specific questions we will consider are the following: What things are worth pursuing?  What is the relationship between a good life and a life of pleasure, happiness, and virtue?  What are some barriers to living a good life? What role do love, hope, and creativity play in a meaningful life?
  • 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)
  • Narratives of Identity & Relationship
    This course uses stories as a framework to engage the questions, Who am I, and Why am I like this? with particular emphasis on the role of communication and relationships in shaping our answers. Ultimately, if we understand ourselves and others more fully, we will be better equipped to function effectively in all of our personal and professional worlds.
  • Printmaking: Idea, History, and Practice
    Images carved from wood blocks and impressed onto paper have first appeared in China as early as 2nd century A.D.  Since then, prints have become tools and resources for artists, scientists, naturalists, cartographers and travel chroniclers.  Today, printmaking is a vibrant, sprawling visual arts discipline that incorporates traditional and cutting-edge technology and embodies some of the most pertinent questions of contemporary art:  questions of distribution, authorship, appropriation etc.   Through readings in history and theory of printed image, exhibition visits and writing of exhibition essays, students will engage with the history, theory and contemporary practice of printmaking.
  • Race and Immigration in Europe
    Should we open or close our borders? Do we have a responsibility to help people escaping war, persecution, and genocide? Which groups should we let in, and which should we keep out? Amid these heated debates, immigration has undoubtedly become one of today’s most significant global issues. This course investigates immigration in both past and present, focusing on Europe—specifically Britain, France, and Germany—from the end of World War II until today. We will connect immigration to other topics such as racism, gender, sexuality, and imperialism, and we will analyze primary sources including films, memoirs, diaries, novels, and music.
  • Race and Law in the United States
    We investigate the argument that legal institutions and legal actors play key roles in fashioning racial categories and their political and social import.  We address questions of citizenship, freedom, property, segregation, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement.
  • 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.
  • Shapes of Desire: Love Poetry
    The course is designed to introduce students to the Modern Lyric Love Poem as it has developed in the English language over the past 500 years, focusing on a sequence of poems closely related to one another by a web of allusions and thematic concerns (some explicit and some more subtle or implicit). Students will learn how to read, analyze, interpret, and write about lyric poems, examining how the genre has changed over time as new generations of poets have picked up on a set of basic motifs, topoi, themes, and structures, applying them to new purposes in new cultural and historical contexts.
  • Should the government pay for my new stove?
    How do we decide whether the clean energy policies that are part of the Inflation Reduction Act, such as a tax rebate for new electric stoves or cooktops, are good policies? In this course we will examine various government and institutional policies such as race-conscious admissions, student loan forgiveness, and the minimum wage. Our examination will focus on the tension between equity and efficiency of policies 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.
  • Space, Time, and Relativity
    This course examines the logical foundations of Einstein’s theory of relativity and explores its implications for how we understand time, space, speed, length, gravity, and various other phenomena in physics. We will encounter wildly counterintuitive ideas such as objects contracting when they move at high speeds, twins on different spacecraft aging at different rates, and why one cannot even in principle travel faster than the speed of light. Our approach to the subject will be quantitative, deriving expressions that describe how space and time are transformed for observers moving at different speeds, and then applying those equations in new situations. Although computer simulations and algebraic problem solving will play prominent roles in this course, no prior knowledge of physics is assumed, and calculus is not required.
  • Split Selves
    In this course, we explore the challenges and benefits of growing up bilingual/multilingual in the United States, whose reputation for monolingualism and rapid generational language loss has led researchers to call it "a graveyard of languages." Questions that we will confront together include: 1) What do schools prioritize some types of bilingualism and stigmatize others? 2) What makes many immigrant parents oppose bilingual education for their children? 3) Do bilinguals think or behave differently in each of their languages? To address these (and other) questions, we will analyze memoirs, conduct interviews, and chat with experts in bilingual language acquisition.
  • Storytelling in Science
    This course is designed to expose students to the biological and physical sciences through storytelling. Artfully told stories have the power to shorten learning curves on otherwise complex and inaccessible scientific concepts. But storytelling also requires certain formats and trade rules to maximize sales and audience reach. This course looks at commercially successful works of science storytelling and the extent to which they contribute to public perceptions of science and how science is done.
  • 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 Culture of Jazz
    In the 106 years since the first jazz recording, jazz, and jazz musicians as cultural figures, have had an impact on the U.S. and the world. This course will examine and explore jazz as a mode for Black American expression, as American popular dance music, as Bohemian artistic expression, and as a form of political protest. The course will delve into jazz’s popular demise, and track the way, as other musical genres gained popular music prominence, jazz has devolved, in the present day, into something of cultural oddity, even, at times, a national punchline, while somehow remaining a consistent musical force.
  • The Double Life of Paris
    Paris is one of the most idealized and romanticized cities in the world. Even for those who have never visited, Paris easily conjures recognizable images and reliable stereotypes, from the Eiffel Tower to the Arch of Triumph, and from famous fashion houses to the typical Parisian cafe. In this course, we will challenge this first cliched version of Paris by contrasting it with another version: Paris as the space of political unrest, social conflict, and protest. Through literary texts, film, newspaper articles, historical documentation, and essays, we will explore the long history of the double life of Paris.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Understanding and Managing Risk: Implications for Business and Society
    This course will discuss the topic of risk as it relates to business and society. Students will explore the origins and concepts of risk; understand and debate risk issues using multiple perspectives; reflect on how risk issues were addressed in the past and how they should be addressed in the future; and explore how to consider risk, uncertainty, and resilience in their own decisions.
  • 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?