FYS Course Descriptions

Read about the fall 2024 First Year Seminars below. Complete details, including course instructors and meeting times, can be found in BannerWeb's Registration menu.
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  • (Anti) Heroes and Villains
    Outlaws, sympathetic villains, antiheroes, recuperated bad guys— the function and characterization of antiheroes and villains (the grey and black shades of morality and human behavior) 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 Early Modern period through the contemporary to answer questions such as: how do antiheroes 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?
  • Ancient Philosophies of Life
    Through reading ancient texts from Greece, India, and China, this course will engage students to articulate and examine their core values and beliefs about what would make their lives happy and fulfilling and what would create a more flourishing society as well.  It also aims to help students develop healthy writing habits and gain a preliminary understanding of several ancient philosophies of life.
  • Angst Years: Hormones, High Anxiety, & 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.
  • Art as Political Action
    Art and architecture have long been political action – meant to sway, provoke, and mold public opinion, to express, argue, and create individual and institutional identities. Together we will look at fascinating examples from the late medieval/early modern to today. From the socio-political propaganda battles in Florence between rival families and factions, to the socio-cultural and artistic encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples of the Americas (and contemporary explorations of them), to socio-cultural and political battles of contemporary America, we explore how these works serve as persuasion, propaganda, narrative, counter-narrative, activism, protest, counter-protest, and more, enacted on individual and civic bodies and the body politic alike.
  • Banned in the USA
    While censorship is not new, conversations about book banning and challenges to instructional materials in schools, libraries, and universities continue in every corner of our nation.   In this course, students will examine the history of book banning in the United States, emphasizing the surge in recent years due to an intensely polarized political environment.  Students will explore excerpts and full texts of several challenged books and other materials and 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, policymakers, 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.
  • Buckwheat and Caviar: The Idea of Sustainability in Russian Literature, Science, and Culture
    Global warming, loss of biodiversity, climate justice: these are urgent challenges and opportunities for change.  This course looks at sustainability challenges and change in the huge territory occupied by Russia and Siberia.  Readings and docufilms include Russian science fiction and climate fiction, the (Soviet) origins of the world’s first seed bank, and the Pleistocene Park climate mitigation project in Siberia. Across time and cultural differences, these narratives address issues we face today.
  • Dances for Everybody
    In this First Year Seminar, we will turn to the expressive language of the body to address issues of colonialism, migration, and climate justice. How can the performing arts, in particular dance and theater with their emphasis on the body, action, and meaning, serve as a practice of freedom both individually and collectively? To delve into this question, we will welcome a series of guest artists and engage with their work. These include the exhibition Border Cantos / Sonic Borders, a collaboration between American photographer Richard Misrach and Mexican-American artist and composer Guillermo Galindo, and the dance performance Mareas / Tides, a collaboration between Marion Ramírez, a somatic dancer-choreographer from Puerto Rico and Ojeya Cruz Banks, a Black Chamoru/Pacific dancer-anthropologist/choreographer. We will also have the opportunity to engage with the work of Puerto Rican activist and environmental lawyer Ruth Santiago. We will witness and analyze how they generate narratives of hope, resistance, and liberation. Students will develop critical writing skills and engage in collaborative creative work.
  • Dao of Leadership
    This course explores paradigms of leadership in Early China, focusing on perceptions of the leader’s role as well as mechanisms to maintain it. It provides a broad perspective on the principles of leadership in the period. We seek to understand how leaders, positioned at the center of society, could embrace the art of stillness through being neither seen nor heard. We investigate philosophies of wielding control and inspiring motivation through leading by example, inclusively caring, encouraging conformity, and emphasizing rewards and punishments. Special attention is given to the strategic use of ritual to harness connections to numinous powers.
  • Digital Communications & Society
    Digital media and social platforms are big business. Consumers don’t always realize that each time they post or click, their information is being sold to marketers. This course will help students discover how the worlds of marketing and advertising have evolved from traditional media like radio, print, and television to new and more interactive digital forms of communication and persuasion. Areas to be studied include the history and generational use of media, the role technology plays in building lasting product relationships, how viral communication creates awareness for brands, and the future of social media with potential governmental regulations. Students will go behind the scenes of social media to also learn how these platforms generate revenues and profits with advertising that offers immediate feedback and supporting data. Strong research skills are required, and students will need to demonstrate subject proficiency both in written and oral formats utilizing traditional and digital media.
  • Dining Out

    Before restaurants were “invented,” where did travelers find a place to eat? What did “dining out” look like without a chef de cuisine, menu or a waiter? What did diners discover when traveling? How has restaurant culture evolved over time? Where will it go next? This course examines the range of social, cultural, and economic influences that have shaped our gastronomic practices from antiquity to the present. We will be reading the diaries of travelers, the observations of men and women at court, the lives of chefs, the business histories of famous entrepreneurs, and the reviews of restaurateurs. Class readings, writing, and independent research will draw on various methods (historical analysis, participant-observation, and museum and kitchen visits, even some culinary practice!) to address the larger questions of how the many forms of commensality define our social identities and cultural values.

  • 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, scholarly articles, historical documentation, and essays, we will explore the long history of the double life of Paris.
  • 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.
  • Ever After: The Literary Lives of Fairy Tales
    Fairy tales are among the most enduring and popular stories in human culture. Although they may seem to be simple stories for children, they were most often written by adults with serious intentions and literary aspirations. Over the course of the semester, students will explore the history of fairy tales and consider why we tell stories, what they reveal about us, and how stories are adapted to suit new contexts. Students will read multiple versions of some classic fairy tales as well as contemporary adaptations, and their investigation will be framed by readings from scholars of fairy-tale literature.
  • 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.
  • Friendship, Love and Desire
    This interdisciplinary course delves into the philosophical, literary, cinematic, and artistic dimensions of friendship, love, and desire, drawing from both Eastern and Western cultural traditions. It explores the personal and societal aspects of friendship, examining its role in building robust communities. The course also scrutinizes the intricate relationship between friendship and love, analyzing representations of love and desire in diverse literary and cinematic works spanning different cultures and historical periods. Students will gain insights into these profound human experiences through the lens of philosophy, literature, and the arts.
  • From the River Jordan to Jazz and Beyond: The Music of African American
    This course is an introduction to the numerous styles of African American music developed in the United States since 1619.  Beginning with the oral traditions brought by the enslaved from Africa and culminating with jazz and the music of contemporary African American composers, the course will familiarize students 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.
  • Geek Chic
    This FYS explores the increasing popularity of “geek” culture in contemporary society.  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.
  • Global Studies and Public Policy
    From Japan to China, Vietnam, Singapore, India, South Africa, Brazil and the U.S., this FYS examines how public problems are defined, how different policy solutions are crafted, and the ways in which we judge their effec­tiveness. As the art of political decision-making, public policy reflects the reality that: (1) penalties and incentives (“sticks and carrots”) are what primarily drive much of modern life; (2) information is key to structuring effective penalties and incentives; and that (3) thinking analytically and empirically, knowing what to measure and how to measure it, is as important as thinking normatively. 
  • 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.
  • Human/Nature
    This course explores mostly pre-20th century writing that has shaped our senses of “human” and “Nature,” read through our present moment of anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction. We will track how each of the two terms in the course title has been defined in (sometimes startlingly) different ways across time, and how they have been understood in relation. We think about how philosophical questions shape how all knowledge is constructed, carefully reading the language of “primary” texts in the history of ideas and developing strategies to interpret and critically analyze such texts.
  • Life After Death
    Explores the concepts of death and the afterlife in a variety of religions. We will study concepts of the afterlife, heaven, and hell, and discuss whether they exist and what they entail in a range of religious traditions. The course is focused on Islam but also considers comparative perspectives, including Judaism, Christianity, ancient Mesopotamia, and pre-Islamic Arabian tribal religions. We will also consider non-monotheistic and non-theistic traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
  • Literature of Animals
    How can literature bring us closer to the lives of animals? How can the human imagination and creative forms of storytelling and manipulations of language help us to access animal life? How can poetry and fictional prose get us to think carefully about issues like animal ethics and animal psychology? In this class, we will take up these questions by looking closely at a wide range of poetry, novels, and short stories that engage with animals. These will include works about horses, cockroaches, apes, wolves, tigers, panthers, jaguars, moose, bats, cats, dogs, elephants, bears, and more.
  • Loss and Remains
    Loss is part of every human life yet makes life come apart. How we reconstitute what remains after great loss transforms memories and possibilities. This course explores different experiences of loss and different approaches to all that remains for the world afterwards. We consider losses that occur through bodily damage, moral injury, environmental destruction, and the death of loved ones. In each case, we analyze how losses inspire transformed imagination of the material, social, religious, and inner worlds.
  • Lost in Translation
    What is translation? How does it affect our lives? How does translation shape the world we live in, and our relation to it? In this course, we will explore how translation impacts communication across languages, cultures, and time. We will investigate how translation attends to linguistic nuance, social mores, cultural values, historical understanding, political organization, and power relations. What are the goals of translation? How can it aid or impede understanding? How are translators and interpreters perceived in different contexts (literary, diplomatic, legal, etc.)? How can translation increase our appreciation for the connections between language, culture, and history?
  • 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? 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? 
  • Text

    We will examine U.S. strategy to achieve its interests in the world through theory and history, looking at selected cases of U.S. successes, failures and what its leaders might have done, or might yet do, better. Significant debates exist today over what American grand strategy should be. We will attempt collectively and individually to answer that question.  This analysis serves as a platform to understand strategy in other contexts such as social movements, organizations, and managing our own lives. Does strategy work? If so how best to do it?

  • Poetry and Music
    The FYS Poetry and Music class discovers by reciting poems aloud how through their embodied voices poems sing, dance, dream, cry, laugh and tell a story. The class writes responses to and analyses of poetry they recite and discuss in our meetings. The syllabus will include learning about the lives of poets and watching YouTube video of them reading from their work. Assignments begin with reading John Keats’ poem “To Sleep,” and proceeds to read the pathbreaking poetry of Whitman and Dickinson. It will then take you chronologically through poetry generally classified as modernist,  avant garde , blues, jazz, protest, post-modern and contemporary.
  • Psychology of Design
    What makes something “user-friendly”? How do professionals design products and environments that are intuitive to use and navigate?  Students in this course will develop a robust understanding of the role of psychology in design across domains such as technology, healthcare, transportation, and architecture. Students will learn the principles of human-centered design, which highlights the importance of optimizing system or product performance with consideration to human needs, well-being, cognitive capabilities, and limitations. Students will critically analyze and contribute innovatively to the creation of user-friendly, efficient, and safe products and environments.
  • Reading the Past
    What do fantastical stories of heroes and lovers, travelers and monsters tell us about Antiquity and the Middle Ages? This seminar challenges students to consider the meanings of "history", "fact", "fiction", "literature", “epic”, when using parts or all of the following texts: Boccaccio’s Decameron, Gilgamesh, Virgil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, Arthurian Romances of Crétien de Troyes, and Dante’s Inferno. A central question will be how historians can use narratives to understand the cultures we study. In essence, the course asks students to consider how their understanding of the past has been and is being constructed. 
  • Rights of the Criminally Accused
    The purpose of this course is to critically examine the substantive and procedural aspects of criminal law through the study of decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. In particular, this course will focus on the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendment protections of the criminally accused. Emphasis will be placed on the approaches taken by the Court to balance law enforcement’s goals against constitutional protections afforded to individuals. We will study the decisions of the Supreme Court and law enforcement practices with a critical eye on understanding the real-world implications each has on the criminal justice system.
  • Salsa Meets Jazz
    Through research, group projects, critical analysis, and direct participation in the creative process, the students will explore how music has been central to communication, expression of emotion, and the development of community since the beginning of mankind.  Over the course, students will explore the beginnings of Afro-Cuban music and American jazz and their blending and transformation into many styles of music including salsa, son, cha-cha-cha, rumba and Latin jazz.  Students will also study the cultural, historical, economic and social makeup of Cuba, and create a musical and cultural framework of America during the swing era.
  • 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.
  • Seeing, Believing, Knowing

    Can you always believe everything that you see? Did you ever see something that wasn’t there or fail to understand what you just saw with your own eyes? This course focuses three central inquiries: What is the relationship between what we see and what we understand, what we see and what we believe, and what we see and what we know. With attention to developing critical writing, speaking, and thinking skills, we will consider the nature, value, and limitations of images, paying special attention to photography, documentary film, and images in the age of Generative AI.

  • 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.
  • Slavery and the Contemporary Imagination
    In Slavery in the Contemporary Imagination, students will explore histories of enslavement and apply that knowledge to contemporary portrayals of slavery in U.S. popular culture through the study of film, art, music, public history sites, and more. Our study will link this learning to ongoing movements for racial justice, including the environmental justice and prison abolitionist movements. The city of Richmond will serve as our lab to trace these issues across time and space in a vibrant local context. Through this work, students will further develop critical analytic skills through rigorous reading, speaking, and writing assignments.
  • 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.
  • Sport and Religion in America
    Explores the intersection of sport and religion in America. We will study the ways in which religion, race, sport, and social justice intersected the lives and careers ofathletes such as Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.  We will establish the historical, social, and political contexts for these athletes and their generations.  In doing so, we will explore the racialization of Islam and Muslims in America and the role of race in religious movements calling for social justice.  We will also explore issues explicitly related to gender, sport, and religion.
  • Summons to Conscience
    Southern African Americans weren’t citizens of the United States until 1965—nearly a century after emancipation. This course uses contemporary literature from the mid-20th century and historical scholarship to interrogate the strategies civil rights activists used to upend nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation, arguably the most discriminatory set of policies in American history.
  • 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.
  • Women and Coloniality: Latin American, Latinx, and Indigenous Women Writers
    On a daily basis, women deal, resist, and negotiate with structures of power and oppression developed over centuries in material, bodily, and conceptual terms. In the case of Latin America and its diaspora in the United States, conquest, cultural and racial mixing, (neo)colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and racism gave way to unique strategies by women writers to create spaces of knowledge in order to defend their bodies, their minds, and their livelihoods. This course examines the lives and works of four writers ranging from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries and their relevance and reinvention in contemporary academia, art, and activism.
  • Writing About Food
    Beyond taste itself, food tells us about culture, class, regionality, and access. How do we convince a picky friend to try a new restaurant, or verbally capture the taste of a favorite meal? What group can stake claim to a certain dish, and who teaches us how to make it? This class looks at four distinct hallmarks of food writing— description, criticism, instruction, and exploration—as a way of learning the goals of academic writing. Course materials will include film, short stories, podcasts, nonfiction essays and articles, cooking instruction, and direct observation of Richmond’s culinary scene.