Spring 2015 Topics

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  • Across the Continents: The Art of the Short Story

    What can modern short stories tell us about a multicultural world? In this seminar we shall study a series of short stories written by authors belonging to vastly contrasting cultures. Focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century literature we shall consider topics relevant to short story writing and criticism from around the globe.

  • Baseball in Film and Literature

    This seminar explores how baseball has been portrayed in American film and literature through four mediums: documentary, feature film, fiction, and non-fiction.  The course will encourage four mediums: documentary, feature film, fiction, and non-fiction.  The course will encourage students to think about the ways these mediums reveal how baseball has embodied critical aspects of American society including race and ethnicity, urbanization and suburbanization, business, labor-management relations, and media.  While all the levels of baseball will be touched on, the primary focus will be Major League Baseball.

  • Bioethics

    Stem cell therapy. Human cloning. Genetic testing. Organs for sale. Physician-assisted suicide. Constantly in the news and at the forefront of political, legal, and religious agenda, these phrases are associated with strong emotions and opinions. How do we develop decisions about these critical issues? What information and principles guide ethical decisions in medicine and what are the consequences for humanity? In this seminar, we will study ehtical questions in medicine and biomedical research. We will learn to approach problems in bioethics from a variety of perspectives, guided by ethical principles and centered on an understanding of relevant concepts in human biology and scientific technology.

  • Buckwheat and Caviar: The "Sustainable" Planet in Russian Science and Literature

    What do sustainability, locavore diets, biodiversity, and the concept of the Anthropocene (our geological era, in which human activity is the dominant influence on planetary systems) have to do with Russian literature? Russian culture has been uniquely shaped by the vastness of its landscape (occupying one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass), offering a cross-cultural perspective on the relationship of human beings to other animals, plants, food production, climate cycles, and our collective destiny. Readings, films and fieldtrips will provide a thematic introduction to Russian and Soviet history, as well as an opportunity to “think locally” about sustainability issues.

  • Communism: The Human Experience

    The course examines the politics of individual choice in the context of the Soviet-style communism that existed in eastern and central Europe from the end of the Second World War until 1989.  Using a combination of fiction, political essays, and film, the course examines both the evolving methods of cooptation and oppression used by this communist system and the individual and collective responses that entailed a combination of idealism, complicity, and resistance.  The course studies the political context of the difficult trade-offs people made between ambition, loyalty, friendship, love, fear, being true to their principles, and fulfilling their dreams.  The course also asks the students to apply the themes developed in the readings and films to the challenges and choices they witness in the world around them.

  • Contemplative Traditions in Art

    This course will examine the visual art, poetry and music connected to or inspired by three important and influential world contemplative religious traditions.  Though there are, at some levels, enormous differences between Zen, Sufism and Mystical Christianity, there are also surprising similarities in the aims, methods, approaches, and most importantly, the language used by great practitioners of these traditions.  We will study a selection of primary texts, and since these texts explore religion at an esoteric level, they are very challenging.  We will also devote a limited amount of time reading from scriptures, including Buddhist Sutras, The Old and New Testaments, and the Quran.

  • The Criminal Brain

    This course will investigate the neuroscience behind criminal behavior and how an understanding of brain-behavior relationships can inform our basis for morality, justice, punishment, rehabilitation and forgiveness.  Students will use a variety of sources, including media reports, documentaries, movies, television shows, novels, scholarly journal articles and selected chapters from scholarly books to examine critical questions related to the criminal brain.  Guest speakers, including lawyers and/or a judge; clinicians and social workers, will be invited to discuss areas of their expertise.  A possible fieldtrip to Richmond City Jail will give students first-hand knowledge of Virginia’s criminal justice system.  Students will examine both their own beliefs as well as societal codes as they debate issues, write opinion papers and research papers, and take part in a mock trial.

  • Cyberspace: History, Culture, Future

    William Gibson, who gave us the term "cyberspace" and described a dystopia of revolutionary hackers, "megacorporations," and collapsed governments in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, once noted that he intended his fictions as cautionary tales about the power of media. He found, to his chagrin, that a critical mass of hackers, gamers, and corporations decided that they wanted to build his "consensual hallucination." And by the mid-90s, the digital genie was out of the bottle: a new way of communicating, playing, and making money had emerged with the World Wide Web. In our breathless rush since then, we rarely stop to ask: How did we get to this point? Where might we be going? What costs and benefits might accrue from an age of constantly accelerating technological change? How could such change alter our identity as biological creatures, not to mention our careers, notions of privacy, and conceptions of intellectual property? Students taking this seminar would not only discuss the Web and cyberculture but get close to it in ways they may not have imagined from the "comfort zones" of Facebook and restricted course-management software like Blackboard. They’ll see and actually explore a few cutting-edge venues online, and some of their work will help develop future iterations of this seminar.

  • Devil in the Details: Microhistory & Historical Narrative

    Witches and heretics, religious prophets and confidence men, Indian 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 seemingly bizarre events. In this seminar, students learn how scholars research and write these gripping historical narratives and work in teams to develop their own microhistories based on rare archival documents from eighteenth-century New England.

  • Education and Society

    This course will examine the history and role of K-12 education in our American republic. From the vision of Thomas Jefferson for common schools in Virginia to the No Child Left Behind legislation, public (and private) education has been crucial in educating for citizenship, moral character, and for productivity.

  • Faith and Difference in America: Learning to Live Together

    Religious faith is central to the daily life and identity of a majority of the population in the United State. 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.

  • Food for Thought

    This course sets out to examine how and why food has been such a persistent topic in scholarly and popular discourses across fields as diverse as cultural studies, economics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, history, and literature. We will investigate how scholars, writers, and artists in various media have employed food in their work - in some instances to inquire about eating disorders or the politics of global hunger, and in others as a metaphor for social belonging, alienation, or desire. Throughout the semester we will critically consider what diet has to do with identity, and how food and the body intersect in a variety of contemporary texts.

  • Framing the US Constitution
    This course provides an examination of the making of the United States Constitution, focusing on the political ideas that led to the creation of the American republic; the Constitutional Convention of 1787; the ratification debates, and the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Through our readings and discussion, we will undertake a critical examination of the lofty ideals and pragmatic compromises that produced the framework of American government.
  • From Paris (Texas) to Berlin: The Cinema of Wim Wenders

    This course will explore the cinema of the acclaimed German director Wim Wenders.  We will use his films to explore different topics: the identity of Berlin as a city filled with war memories and post-modern interrogations in Wings of Desire (1987), the American landscape and the kind of stories it produces in Paris, Texas (1984), Cuban music in Buena Vista Social Club (1999), or moden dance as an art for in Pina (2011), to give only a few examples. Since Wenders has worked with different styles of films, and in different countries, we will also look at what unites his work as a cinematographer, from his recent interest in 3D technology. Wim Wenders’ work also offers a systematic reflection on what distinguishes film as a medium from other narrative forms. From his very early beginnings, Wenders dealt with the relationship between film and literature.  In 1972, he adapted Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the screen and in the same year directed The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, a film based on a short-story by Peter Handke, with whom Wenders has worked in the decades since. One important aspect of the course will therefore be exploring the role of cinema as an alternative way of telling stories and as a tool for reflecting on the power of language, images, and music.

  • Games, Game Theory and Leadership Studies

    This course focuses on the principles of games and gaming; the relevance of game theories to societies, history, and geopolitics; and on the importance of these principles to issues of leadership and leadership studies. We will use a variety of games - board games, psychology games, videogames, and game theory - to examine significant concerns and issues relevant to discussion of leadership theories and practices. For example, the course might examine how the board game Monopoly brings to light issues of economics and class inequalities, as well as the way in which its mechanics enforce social and economic behaviors in the players.

  • Global Medicine and Healing

    This is a seminar in medical anthropology. The seminar examines how people in cultures from around the world regard and heal illness. While Western biomedicine is acknowledged throughout the world as effective, in some cases, people turn to traditional or ethnomedical cures. How people articulate their selections in these medically plural environments raises a host of questions we will explore throughout the semester: How do people discuss their illnesses? Do they use metaphors ("I’m fighting a cold")? What is their process of healing? Our readings will conclude with consideration of healing efficacy, spiritual healing and pharmaceutical testing of herbal curing.

  • Guns in America

    The course will explore the cultural meanings of firearms in the United States, a nation in which gun ownership and citizenship are closely linked in the popular imagination —and have been, historically, enshrined in law.  We will look at the ways that groups of constituents —for example, women, African Americans, and immigrants —have been excluded from gun ownership and the ways in which this has become an issue of political power (think of the Black Panthers, who got their start as a political movement joining NRA members in a march on the California state house, in Sacramento, protesting proposed gun control legislation).  Because the state of Virginia has long been a center for debates over gun ownership, going back to some of the earliest gun regulations of the Virginia colonies, as well as the site of the nation’s worst college massacre, Virginia Tech, we will focus much of our discussion on Virginia.

  • Health Care Politics and Policy Around the World

    This course is both a first year seminar and one of the Tocqueville seminars focused on studying the U.S. from a comparative or international perspective. The United States has a more limited and targeted welfare state than most other wealthy, industrialized countries and has stood out as the only country among its peers without universal access to health care coverage. This course will look at the differences in health care policy and politics between U.S. and countries such as Canada, Japan, and those of Western Europe. It will cover the comparative historical development of various health care systems and the relative role of the private sector and the government in providing, paying for, and regulating access to health care. It will also look at how recent health care reforms in the U.S. compare with the policies developed in other countries and how various political forces such as organized labor, doctors’ organizations, and legislative insitutions shape policy.

  • Hearing Cinema: Music in Hollywood Film

    Through the study of eight Hollywood films, this course examines how music in film narration creates a point of experience for the spectator. Students consider what music is doing in the movies in the first place, and then how it does what it does. Students also examine what and how music signifies in conjunction with the images and events of a story film. By sensitizing students to the fore-and background levels of musical meaning in film, they will begin to hear cinema’s uses of music in order to read films in a more literate way.

  • Higher Education: From Aristotle to Animal House

    This course will examine the writings of notable educators from the last 2500 years. Students will examine the evolution of the modern university, controversies over curricular content, competing objectives of liberal arts and vocational education, tensions between religious and secular viewpoints, and the role of extra-curricular activities.

  • It’s a bird...It’s a plane...It’s a reporter: The journalist in popular media
  • Is Jewish-Christian Dialogue Possible?

    Anti-Judaism has been a reality for Jews since prior to the emergence of Christianity, but with Christianity a new form of anti-Judaism emerged, i.e., theological anti-Judaism.  Through readings and discussions we will seek to understand this phenomenon historically.  The period of the holocaust served as a pivotal change of focus.  Prior to the holocaust rampant anti-Judaism existed but with little attention given to its curtailment ecclesiastically.  The holocaust and its aftermath convinced many Christians of an ecclesiastical complicity with what happened to the Jews during this horrendous period, and thus during the post-holocaust period many Christian bodies have sought to express in formal papers the relationship of the churches to Judaism.  Is there light at the end of the proverbial tunnel?  To seek answers, we will analyze Biblical and non-Biblical materials, written and artistic, and their impact upon Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

  • Knowing and Choosing in the Face of Adversity and Uncertainity

    There are many lenses through which to analyze the human experience. In this reading-intensive course of challenging texts, we will examine knowing on the one hand, and various ways of choosing in the face uncertainty and adversity on the other, as these concepts play out in selected classic texts. In the second part of the semester, we will examine the ways in which contemporary individuals seek to fashion happy and fulfilling lives, as we shift our focus to a 21st century situation of adversity that demands change.

  • Latin American Politics and Film

    For most of the 20th century, Latin America was characterized by unstable political and economic regimes.  Indeed, in countries as diverse as Argentina and El Salvador, democracy had a difficult time taking root, and repressive authoritarian rule was common.  Latin America also faced significant economic challenges throughout this time period, experimenting with several development models; many of which produced volatile growth, high debt, and severe boom-bust cycles.  By the turn of the 21st century, however, the political-economic landscape of Latin America appeared to have shifted. Beginning in the 1980s, the region began to witness unprecedented democratic stability and by the early 2000s economic growth had begun to pick up steam. Still, the countries in the region continue to face several difficult challenges, including high levels of inequality, organized crime, and citizen discontent. This course will explore the region’s turbulent politics, focusing on core concepts from comparative politics, including revolution, dictatorship, democracy, development, and the state. The course will combine both written analysis and film to introduce students to the region and to the field of Political Science.

  • Lived Religion: Acting Out Faith

    The course will examine the ways in which people of faith enact their religious beliefs in daily life, both individually and communally. While framing this “lived religion” within institutional religion, the course will consider how lay people and local religious specialists adapt and create doctrine and ritual to meet their needs within particular historical and cultural contexts. Topics addressed will include gender and domestic religion, material religion, religion and the body, totems and taboos, death and mourning, and digital piety. Course readings will focus on contemporary lived religion in the US within Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic communities.

  • Love and Its Complications

    In this seminar we will try to read (or view), discuss, and write about eight written texts and three films (or filmic texts) that deal with the topic of love in divergent ways. The authors of the various texts all assume that love - of one or another type - is central to human happiness, but they also all believe that people typically encounter serious impediments in the search for fulfillment in love. In one of its important meanings, the word "complications" in the title of the seminar refers to such impediments and to the strategies that people use in trying to overcome them. The various texts have been chosen in part not only because each of them presents a distinctive perspective on the seminar topic, but also because they reflect some of the important kinds of writing or film-making that influential thinkers (a philosopher, a founder of modern psychology) and artists (both literary and cinematic) have chosen as means of exploring the topic of love. Which is to say that the texts we’ll examine are all quite demanding (their complexities reflect the complexities of the ideas they explore) and are meant to help you become stronger readers and thinkers - college-level readers and thinkers. We’ll begin by learning about some of the ideas propounded by two of the most influential theorists of love in the history of Western culture, Plato and Sigmund Freud, and then go on to examine a considerable diversity of literary and cinematic texts--novels, a play, a group of poems, and three films--in which the complexities of love are explored, not at a theoretical level, but at the level of actual human or personal experience.

  • 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.

  • Moral Antecedents of the Global Economic Crisis

    This course analyzes the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and the role that changing ethical norms may have played in causing the financial market collapse.  We begin by addressing basic concepts from ethics, economics, history and philosophy.  The intellectual backdrop for our work is provided by philosopher/economist Adam Smith.  Here are some of the questions students will pursue:  How do natural instincts combine with humanly-devised institutions to create economic success (or failure)?  Did greed play a role in creating this recession?  Does the invisible hand of the market depend on greed?  Is self-interest virtuous or vicious?  Are human actions always rational?  Can institutional reforms prevent another financial collapse?

  • Narratives of Identity & Relationship

    Story plays a central role in creating our senses of identity and relationship. Narratives of various forms help establish who we believe we are, how we see ourselves in relation to others, our personal ideologies, and our behavior in interactions with those around us. Gender, race, social class, ethnicity, ability, friendships, family, sexual identity, profession, religious beliefs...these and countless other aspects of our lives are in many ways given meaning through the narratives in and around us, and they are brought to life in our communication behavior. In this course, we will explore in depth the role of narratives in shaping who we are and how we interact with others.

  • Philosophical Backgrounds to the American Revolution

    This course focuses on 17th and 18th century English and American political thought and action. Issues to be examined include the reshaping of the concept of sovereignty in the absence of a sovereign king in the aftermath of the English Civil War; race and paradox of racism in the US where “all men are created equal”; women’s rights; the concept of autonomy as a criterion for citizenship; and the relation between democracy and capitalism. Readings will include selections from the Levellers, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and others.

  • The Philosophy of Freedom

    Is freedom valuable? Why should we care about it? In this course we will examine the nature and value of freedom. We will consider the value of different freedoms, such as freedom of expression and economic freedom, and explore the relationship between freedom and various public policy issues, such as immigration, hate speech, prostitution, drug use, and human enhancement. The readings will be philosophical papers on these topics.

  • The Pious and the Profane: Monks, Nuns, and Medieval Society and Culture

    The Pious and the Profane explores Christian monasticism from its fourth-century origin in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria through the creation of the Jesuit order in the sixteenth.  It traces how the ascetic practice embraced by individual hermits outside the established church became, in its communal Benedictine form, an integral element of the medieval church.  The course delves into monastic reform (Cluniac, Cistercian), crusading monastic orders (Templars, Hospitallers), mendicant monasticism (Franciscans, Dominicans, Poor Clares), and the depiction of monks and nuns in medieval vernacular literature (e.g., Chaucer, Boccaccio).  The course concludes with the portrayal of medieval monasticism in modern popular culture.

  • Politics and Literature

    The course will encourage students to read well-known works of literature in order to illuminate and broaden the study of political science. What can reading books tell us about the political climate in which a particular author writes? What can they tell us about human desires and motivations that shape political attitudes and decisions but are not easily studied through traditional “social science” methodology? What can novelists and poets tell us about the limitations of political institutions in light of human nature?

  • St. Petersburg: The Myth and the City in Literature, Painting, and Music

    For Russians, St. Petersburg is much more than just another pretty face.  The city lives and breathes the spirit of what makes them and us who we are since we are ultimately the same.  Exploring the differences between the myth and reality of Petersburg through the arts locates us in the very place where those differences are born and find expression in the metalanguages of literature, music, and painting.  The very process of mythmaking as an alternate reality is where we discover ourselves, our highest aspirations and our darkest fears and, thanks to the Russian genius, the beauty of both.

  • Science, Pseudoscience, and Anti-Science: Perspectives for Future Leaders

    This course will examine how evidence-based reasoning is applied, misapplied, and not applied in the modern world.  Scientific knowledge and advancement underlie every aspect of contemporary life.  Yet in many ways the misunderstanding of science and the acceptance of anti-scientific ideas have never been more prevalent.  We will journey across modern society to explore the issues at the heart of this paradox: 1.  What defines scientific and evidence-based reasoning. 2. How scientific and evidence-based decision making is the foundation of the relataive prosperity , security, and health that we enjoy. 3. What are common contemporary manifestations of pseudoscience and anti-science.   4. Why do pseudoscience and anti-science have the wide appeal and traction that they do.

  • Seeing, Believing and Understanding

    This course explores how we process and interpret what we see, providing an introduction to the methods of effective visual display of information. The course covers the display of quantitative data, information that describes maps of buildings, people, or other things and information that has a motion component or shows action, such as the cloud development, dancing, and sports formations. We will illustrate how effective visual displays allow observers to summarize complex thoughts, make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and be persuaded by visual as opposed to verbal or written argument. We will teach students how to organize information for display, how to use an artistic perspective to make displays more effective, and how to recognize misleading presentations of information.

  • The Spirit and Soul of American Economic History

    Students will study five important topics in American history from an economic perspective while reading associated classic American novels. Our subjects will include: Late Nineteenth-Century Monetary Policy (gold standard), Immigration, Technology and Regulation, the Great Depression, and Discrimination and Civil Rights. This course would be an especially relevant complement to students taking Principles of Microeconomics or Principles of Macroeconomics.

  • Staging Conflict: Opera, Politics and Society

    Opera is more than entertainment. Like works of literature, operas address the concerns of individuals, families, societies, and nations.  They reflect the times in which they were created and the times in which they are performed.  This course approaches opera from a thematic perspective, examining works that address class conflict, political unrest, family dynamics, and gender roles. Through reading, viewing, and discussion, we will explore these themes in their historical contexts and relate them to contemporary experience. Students will learn to decode the language of opera by watching videos and attending live performances. No musical knowledge or experience is required

  • Storytelling, Identity, and Social Change

    This course explores the role that life narratives—“stories”—play in shaping a community’s shared sense of identity and in enacting social change. Using a rhetorical lens to read a variety of life narratives produced at crucible moments in American history, we will consider how distinct storytelling methodologies have been used to inscribe, enforce, and/or upturn specific community norms and identities, and to mobilize or restrict change. Texts will include as-told-to and self-authored narratives, “imposter” narratives, oral histories, stories archived using digital media, and secondary sources on narrative storytelling, narratives and social movements, and community literacy.

  • Taking it to the Streets: Old and New Media in the Education of the Public

    Taking it to the Streets will examine a variety of old and new media technologies.  It will review the resources available to public scholars for taking an informative and enlightening message to the general public.  The course will elucidate ways in which the humanities will help students master the traditional tools of research and turn them to their advantage for intergenerational education.  Then working alone or in teams, students will build some multimedia means of information dispersal.  They will craft accessible messages for a non-academic audience and then deliver them as research dossiers and oral presentations.

  • The Families: Italian Organized Crime and Its Fictional Representations

    This course is a survey of various fictional representations, in literature and movies, of Italian organized crime. In particular, it intends to call students’ attention to the differences between the representations of mobsters in Italy and the United States. We will focus on the historical and socio-anthropological peculiarities of mafia representations in order to explain these differences as we compare fiction and non-fiction sources.

  • Waiting for God: Belief & Doubt in Literature

    This course will combine intellectual and social history, philosophy, and literature. Our focus will be on the extended crisis of faith inaugurated in the West by the Enlightenment and its ramifications and reflections in literature over succeeding generations. This syllabus will require us to confront these issues: how does fiction illuminate the unwritten boundaries of acceptable religious diversity? How have reflective writers framed the conflict between faith and doubt, and what solutions have emerged? What is the role of human agency in belief and doubt? Is the religious impulse one that is, ultimately, amenable to social or intellectual control?

  • Water: From Noah’s Flood to Katrina

    One of the earliest natural forces to face human beings was water. It was a challenge, but more importantly it was the life giver and the life destroyer. Many cultures represented this ambivalent attitude towards water in their myths and literature. Water became through floods the means of destroying the old and giving birth to the new. In our modern times, we still gaze at water with similar ambivalence. We will look at the representations of this complex attitude to water in literature and other cultural forms that the human imagination has produced in response to the experience of water.

  • What Are Universities For?

    This seminar explores the role of the university in American intellectual, cultural, and political life
    since the eighteenth century. The course will encourage students to think about the nature and
    purpose of higher education; the university’s place in the wider society; and the university as a
    social and economic institution. Topics will include the rise of the university and liberal education,
    knowledge production and the nation state, academic freedom and student protest, cultural
    perceptions of the university, and the university as a site of labor. Authors may include Thomas
    Jefferson, John Henry Newman, John Dewey, Clark Kerr, Mario Savio, Wendell Berry, Derek Bok,
    and Jane Smiley.

  • Wrongful Convictions in Modern America- Costs, Causes, and Solutions

    In the United States, there have been over 240 exonerations achieved through advances n DNA testing capabilities.  Seventeen of those DNA exonerations arose in cases where individuals were sentenced to death.  There is an additional universe of wrongful convictions that involves cases where proof of innocence is not biological in nature.  Such cases pivot around other sources of exculpatory evidence, including recanted testimony, mistaken identification or official misconduct. The production of wrongful convictions is a lens through which society can examine a plethora of important realities.  Race, poverty, faith in science and reason, notions around punishment and redemption and the allocation of scarce resources are all fluidly and dynamically tied to the study of wrongful convictions.