FYS Course Descriptions

Read about the fall 2023 First Year Seminars below. Complete details, including course instructors and meeting times, can be found in BannerWeb's Registration menu.
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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.
  • Angst Years: Hormones, High Anxiety, and Happiness
    Students will explore the complex lives, expectations of, and pressures on middle and high school children, including social, physical, developmental, emotional, and academic challenges that are unique to adolescence. The class will investigate diverse ways of learning, autonomy and independence, and expectations for this age group. Students will determine whether they find legitimacy in the popular concept that boys and girls learn and should be taught differently, and how adolescence might influence learning and academic success. Students will visit public and independent K-12 schools, and single-sex and coeducational classrooms to develop positions for and participate in debates regarding educational issues that affect adolescents. We will also study and create adolescent literature in a visual diary format.
  • Beyond Civilization: Heart and Mind
    This seminar glimpses the foundational religious thinking that created our global civilization. We will critically inquire into the individual and cultural structures of evolutionarily proven societies as they incorporated our current global civilization and the role of religion in this structural shift. We will examine how cultural and religious concepts shape our understanding of nature and ourselves.We will take a critical view toward the conceptual framework of The Enlightenment and its resulting attitudes toward nature and technology, questioning common perceptions and absolutes while seeking openness toward differing world views as we broadly examine the structural changes in religious practices over key points across the millennia.
  • 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.

  • Civic Journalism and Social Justice

    This seminar is reserved for students participating in the Richmond Endeavor program.

  • Climate Fiction and Social Change
     “Climate fiction” is often used to characterize works of literature that imagine the environmental consequences and social effects of phenomena such as rising sea levels, water shortages, animal extinctions, and regional epidemics. Through close analysis of climate fiction and through application of various theories of social change, this course considers intersections between climate change, environmental degradation, social change, literature and science fiction. This course offers students the opportunity to fine-tune close reading and research skills, to critically analyze a wide-variety of fictional and non-fictional texts, and to work collaboratively with others to improve reading and writing abilities.
  • Cops, Crime, and Popular Culture
  • Crime in America

    This course investigates the cultural function of crime in America by examining fictional and actual representations of criminals in novels, films, newspapers, and television. In decoding these texts, we will explore the shifting modes through which Americans have understood or categorized criminals and crimes. Our emphasis is not in exploring crime so much as it is in exploring stories of crime. Ultimately, we will examine the complex ways in which the crime narrative operates as a piercing spotlight on some of the central concerns of American culture – including issues of gender, race, class, and power.

  • Death and Commemoration in Antiquity
    What is the meaning of death, or how does death give meaning to life? Death and remembrance are central to many of the earliest surviving works of literary and artistic expression, from the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh to Egyptian tomb decorations and Homeric poetry. By studying these texts and monuments (and many others from the Mediterranean world), we will explore how ancient people thought about death and afterlife, how and why they chose to commemorate the dead, and what we can learn about human societies and ideologies (including our own) by comparing approaches to death and commemoration across cultures and time. There will be a community-based learning component, with field trips to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and historic cemeteries in Richmond.
  • Democracy and the Deficit
    This course explores the causes and consequences of larger and persistent deficits and the exploding national debt. Why do democracies struggle to deal with a problem that poses major economic, fiscal, moral, and security challenges? How might institutional reforms improve the capacity of democracies to address their debt burdens? Our primary focus is on the United States, but we will also compare the challenges in the US with other democratic states.
  • Digital Communications and Society
    This is a course about understanding the role digital media and social platforms play in the lives of contemporary college students. A number of subject areas will be studied including the history and generational use of media, the role technology plays in media life cycles, the importance of viral communications, how business adapts to emerging media trends, and the future of digital and social media. There will be a strong focus on how digital communications has shaped and influenced businesses and the economy along with politics and journalism. The course will help students learn how to balance digital communications with more traditional writing and verbal skills required to succeed in today’s academic and work place environments. Assignments will utilize digital media and social platforms as part of the learning process. Additionally, there will be a study of contemporary companies that have successfully used digital strategies to market their products and services. At the conclusion of the course, students will have a greater appreciation for the evolution of digital communications and the role it currently plays in our society and in their own lives.
  • 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.
  • Education and Society
    The student will learn about the history of K-12 schooling and education in America staring in the early days of our democracy and ending with current trends. Specifically, the student should have an enhanced understanding of the role of segregation and isolation in America society and schools. The student will be able to analyze the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusivity in America and it’s K-12 education system. Overall, the student will become familiar with the kinds of questions asked by education scholars, policy makers and practitioners in the education field.
  • Effect of Maritime Strategy on International Relations
    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. 
  • Entrepreneurship and 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.’
  • Ever After: Transformations in Fairy Tails
    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.
  • 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 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.
  • Framing Theory and Media Literacy: More Than Just Spin
    This course investigates why we react to media narratives the way we do, and how tiny changes in the way information is presented can trigger large shifts in public opinion. Through the work of experts in political science, psychology, and communication, we will examine how audiences make sense of political information by filling in meaning, and how unconscious predispositions shape that meaning. It’s true for all of us, in ways that may surprise us. Students will explore their own internal mental “frames,” and gain new understanding of how the stories we’re told can activate those frames and impact the political world.
  • Heroes and Villains
    Outlaws, sympathetic villains, antiheroes, folk heroes—the categories of hero and villain are no longer the binaries they were in ancient Greece or early medieval England. And yet the function and characterization of heroes and villains tell us as much about the society in which a text originates as they do the text itself. In this class, we will examine written and visual media from the classical period through the contemporary to answer questions such as: how do heroes and villains shape narratives? What are the emotions or responses they create in readers? How do certain representations (an evil villain instead of a ‘misunderstood’ one) influence our responses?
  • History of Crime and Punishment in Modern British Cities
    This course will explore the history of crime and punishment in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British cities, especially London. We will pay particular attention to the way that conceptions of criminality and what constituted an "appropriate" punishment were intertwined with ideas about social class, gender, and race. Cities occupied an ambivalent space in the British imagination. They produced both new jobs and profoundly unsettling new forms of squalor. They offered the critical mass of population necessary to support institutions like libraries, museums, theatres, and public baths - but also brothels, opium dens, and crime syndicates. Gay men and women found the first public spaces to which they could lay claim, but the police deemed queerness to violate laws on public decency and harassed them. In the empire, fears about criminality led to the wholesale demolition of millennia-old parts of cities if they were deemed to be too difficult to police. Cities were sites of liberation and repression, squalor and prosperity. They gave rise to feelings of greater safety than ever before and perpetual anxiety about criminals lurking around every corner. We will confront and seek to understand these tensions over the course of the semester. 
  • 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 well grapple with challenging questions through a writing intensive approach to inquiry.
  • Meaning and Value
    Have you ever wondered what makes a person’s life go well? Or have you ever wondered how you might make your own life go well? This course is a quest to identify the features of a good human life. In our quest to unravel the components of such a life, we will also gain some insight into how we can improve our own lives by, for instance, instilling our lives with greater meaning and finding ways to become happier. Some more specific questions we will consider are the following: What is 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 is the best way to think about death? Is there any meaning or purpose in human existence and can such meaning be found without a faith in God or religion? What role does art or creativity, or hope play in finding meaning in life? 
  • Medieval England and France in Conflict:  Norman Conquest, Angevin Empire, and Hundred Years’ War
    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. This seminar will challenge students to refine what leadership means to them in theory and may also 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. Class members will be expected to read writings by and about lawyers who have had a significant impact upon American society since the beginning of the twentieth century. The readings will seek to help students appreciate the evolution of American society over that time period, and better understand the context surrounding current controversies involving liberty and equality in America. In addition, class members will be called upon to consider broader questions about what constitutes good leadership.
  • Monumental Change
    This seminar is reserved for students participating in the Richmond Endeavor program.
  • 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.
  • Philosophy and the Criminal Law
    This course considers moral questions raised by the criminal law. First, what justifies legal punishment, and the death penalty in particular? Is it giving wrongdoers what they deserve? Or deterring future crime? Second, should murderers receive a harsher punishment than attempted murderers, even if the success or failure of an attempt to kill someone depends on factors outside the perpetrator’s control? Third, what explains the pervasive racial and economic disparities that characterize the American criminal justice system today? Given that explanation, is race-based jury nullification ever justifiable? Finally, what justifies requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a criminal conviction?
  • Poetry and Music
    This course primarily strives to enhance understanding of the techniques, topics, and evolution of modern poetry. A focus of our work is reading aloud to activate the musical, bodily and rhythmic features inherent in the sound of the course’s poetry. The course surveys American verse, from two of its forerunners, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, to moderns W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost. It will highlight innovations by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley. The course covers blues poet Langston Hughes, African American feminist poets, protest poets and beats, concluding with post moderns W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham. A secondary idea of the class is music as it is varioujsly related to poetry.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Salsa Meets Jazz
    In this course you will learn about American jazz and its mixing with Afro-Cuban music to form many different styles. This includes Salsa, Mambo and Latin jazz. We will study Cuba and its relationship with the US. This will include cultural, musical, economic and political study. Dr. Davison has been to Cuba over 45 times in the last 25 years and has written ‘Stories of Cuba’ and produced a full-length documentary titled, “Cuba, Rhythm in Motion.” Both will be used as ‘texts’ in the class.
  • 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.
  • Science and Anti-Science in Society

    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 relative prosperity, security, and health that we enjoy
    3. What are common contemporary manifestations of pseudoscience and anti-science, including conspiracy theories
    4. Why do pseudoscience and anti-science have the wide appeal and traction that they do
  • Sensing Place: Art, Literature, and the Environment
    In this course, we explore representations of natural places in literature and the visual arts, with a particular focus this semester on trees. Team-taught by an art professor and an English professor, the class is centered on perspective and attention—on the ways we read the natural world, on the forces that shape how we read the natural world, and on ways we might reimagine the natural world and our place within it. We’ll analyze novels, essays, paintings, and photographs; we’ll study current environmental problems and solutions; and we’ll observe, write about, and draw (no experience necessary) in natural spaces on UR’s campus and in the wider region. 
  • Storytelling and Identity
    This seminar is reserved for students participating in the Richmond Endeavor program.
  • Technology in Fantasy and Society
    This course examines the humanistic phenomenon of technological development as it unfolds in diverse scientific, artistic, and philosophical dimensions. Surveying texts, artifacts, and experiments from classical antiquity to the modern era, students will explore how significant advances came to fruition, how associated ideas were depicted in both fictional and non-fictional works, and how individuals and communities voiced reactions to corresponding societal changes. Humanity has always had a complicated relationship with machines. While technology generally brings about improved standards of living, and even periods of flourishing, such as the Renaissance and Enlightenment, there are also often unintended consequences, volatilities, and dangers.
  • 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, publishing, 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 Criminal Brain
    This course investigates the cognitive neuroscience behind criminal behavior and how brain-behavior relationships contribute to our understanding of morality, justice, criminal rehabilitation and prediction of criminal behavior. Course materials include excerpts from textbooks, journal articles, popular media, and novels, and you will critically evaluate the information from both scientific and ethical viewpoints.  You will develop both oral and written communication through extensive class discussions, writing assignments and group presentations. This class will provide opportunities to examine both your own beliefs and societal codes as you engage and debate multiple perspectives on a variety of issues. 
  • 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 Music of African Americans
    This course is intended to introduce students to the numerous styles of African American music developed in the United States since 1619.  Beginning with the oral traditions of Africa and culminating with jazz and the music of contemporary African American composers, students will become familiar with the styles, forms, and composers of these genres.  Additionally, students will attain an understanding of certain social, economic, and political conditions in American history that have affected the evolution of African American music and culture. 
  • The Power to Change the World
    This First Year Seminar course will provide students with the opportunity to explore the impact sport has ignited in regards to social change throughout history. Nelson Mandela so famously quoted, “Sport has 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 of interrogating the intersections between sport, power, inequality and freedom.
  • The Rhetorical Lives of Maps
    This course is a historical and critical interpretation of how maps aided and complicated America’s rise to international power. The processes, production, display, and circulation of maps gave way to a "geographic imagination" that constrained both policy and popular culture - in turn, Americans saw their place in the world in very spatialized ways. From a rhetorical perspective, maps gave us specific and partial perceptions of the globe and cartographers from a host of different institutions and with various national and international interests (government institutions like the State Dept., the CIA, the Department of Defense; academic institutions like the American Geographic Society; popular magazines like National Geographic and Time; and corporations as diverse as Rand McNally and Google) sketched the contours of American identity in both longitude and latitude. This course teaches students how to critique maps as systems of visual codes and also contextualizes for them how maps are used as rhetorical strategies by American elites and publics; by both the powerful and those challenging the powerful. Not only then is this a course on cartography, it’s a course on the wild world-making processes of U.S. geopolitics and international space.
  • The Space Race
    Between the launch of Sputnik and Apollo 11 the world watched as two superpowers competed peacefully for the prestige of being the first nation to put a human in space, then land on the Moon. No international competition since has quite compared, though today NASA, private firms, China, and Russia have made plans to return to the Moon and journey on to Mars.  We will consider historical and cinematic works that explore Apollo, its astronauts and engineers, today’s competitors, as well as changing public attitudes toward human space travel.
  • 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. 
  • The White House Said Today
    A semester-long study of the presidency as conveyed by chief executives’ own words and in official statements by those who speak on the president’s behalf.  Remarks by first family members, speechwriters’ recollections, mediated interpretations by members of the White House press corps, and scholarly analyses of presidential discourse will inform our study as together we explore foundational rhetorical precepts and introduce the practice of rhetorical criticism applied to presidential rhetoric.  Aims include acquiring a rhetorical view of language, leadership, politics and media, using with confidence terms and practices germane to rhetorical history and appreciating the epistemological value of rhetorical inquiry.
  • Tolkien and the Medieval Imagination
    J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he was also an eminent and influential scholar of medieval literature. This course investigates his work as a medievalist and how it illuminates his imaginative writings.
  • Why Do We Build? Why Should We Care?
    Architecture has long been the vehicle for more than merely providing shelter. It has been charged with expressing ideas, relationships, and power structures. We will explore interpretations of the built environment by concentrating on specific texts and related structures and places. Students will read primary and secondary texts related to architectural theory and the interpretation of the built environment. We will look at a variety of building types, locations, functions, and interpretations to better understand our surroundings and their impact on our lives. 
  • 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.