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Duncan, Richard
Program Manager, University College

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University College Courses

In UC, students enroll in a Complex Problems seminar chosen specifically for this Living-Learning Community. The seminar satisfies one of your first AU Core requirements, introducing you to university-level inquiry. Students in UC ask and answer tough questions in a friendly and encouraging academic environment.


University College Cohorts 

Read below to discover the cohorts of seminars. Use the course descriptions to identify your top choice seminars for Fall 2019. When you get to AU, you will live on the same floor as the students within your cohort. For now, choose your favorite seminars from any area! UC will place you into one seminar based on your preferences.

Enroll in UC

  1. Read the UC seminar descriptions for Fall 2019 
  2. Choose six seminars that interest you - you'll be placed into one seminar out of your top choices
  3. Fill out the form located on your MyAU Portal 

More Info

Problem to Policy

This course explores food justice issues in the twenty-first century. Students think critically about topics such as whether food marketing to children should be restricted, whether agricultural subsidies should be eliminated, and how stakeholders incorporate healthful eating practices into health policies. Using local farms, local non-profit agencies, the department of health, and other related organizations, students explore what Washington, DC and states are doing to address food justice in their communities. Instructor: Celeste Davis

While there is agreement that education is key to individual and community well-being, much controversy exists over education's goals and how to achieve them. Issues include identifying education challenges and effective solutions, recognizing how social or economic status interacts with education, and examining what role political ideologies play. Students engage with a variety of speakers, site visits, and readings, and will discuss key issues, such as school choice and assessment, through creative exercises, as we collaboratively explore this complex topic. Instructor: Katharine Kravetz

This course provides students with an opportunity to develop their existing critical thinking skills through a specific focus on the concept and empirical phenomenon of competitive advantage in business (i.e., superior stakeholder value creation). The course addresses a variety of sources of competitive advantage and the interactions between them (including macroenvironmental and industry forces, corporate, business and functional strategies), as well as issues associated with the history and role of business in society, stakeholder engagement, and performance measurement. Readings and assignments will focus on critically analyzing current media coverage of competitive advantage in business, as well as cases.  Instructor: Heather Elms

For a problem of intriguing complexity, look no further than the contemporary city. Home to two-thirds of the world’s population, modern cities -- gloriously diverse cultural, innovation, and artistic hubs, and often refuges for those who seek opportunity or escape from restrictive worlds -- are nonetheless contested, even violent, grounds, spatially embodying social, political, and economic exclusion. This class considers and then employs an emerging “Right to the City” challenge to the status quo of urban power dynamics: tactical urbanism. Citizen-led, and in some cases arising out of urban social movements, these interventions are sometimes transgressive, sometimes sanctioned and respectful, demonstrations of the transformative power of the temporary construction. Tactical urban interventions are of many types and disciplines, from the creation of temporary public squares to street art and graffiti to recurring demonstrations and other performances. Through the collaborative design and documentation of our own tactical urbanistic intervention in Washington, DC, we will seek to understand the possibilities and limits of this approach in moving the world towards more just and inclusive global cities. For background, we will draw on case studies and a rich assortment of historical and contemporary sources, from examples of urban film, music, philosophy, and literature to theories and case studies of urban planning and form. Instructor: Victoria Kiechel

This course considers challenges the Trump administration poses to constitutional democracy and the rule of law. Other presidents have pressed the limits of executive power, especially since 9/11, but the Trump presidency raises new questions that go to the heart of the U.S. constitutional system and require consideration of the rule of law and democratic norms, whether constitutional checks and balances are functioning, and how (and by whom) the scope and limits of executive power are defined. Also considered are the role of Congress, the courts, the press, executive branch lawyers, and the public. Areas of discussion include national security and the use of military force, challenges to dissent and freedom of the press, and white nationalism. The course examines why scholars worry about President Trump's "authoritarian tendencies," how meaningful limits can be set on executive power, what we mean by constitutional democracy and the rule of law and how do these principles apply to the Trump administration, how can the Trump administration's actions be placed in context, given constitutional history (including the origins of the Constitution) as well as actions by past presidents, how are various actors, including Congress, the courts, the press, and the public at large, fulfilling or failing to fulfill their roles in the constitutional system, and whether constitutional democracy and the rule of law are functioning under the Trump administration. Instructor: Chris Edelson

Intangible Matters

Few ideas have stirred the human imagination as has the question of the end of life. This course examines visions of the process of dying and accounts of a possible second life from Judaism to Hinduism, Dante to Milarepa, The Wings of Desire to the Book of Mormon, offering a wide-ranging examination of pathways to the celestial afterworld. By examining the imaginative geography of the afterlife, students learn not only about the existential fear that lingers and grows as we age, but also about how we as a species have reconciled the facts of this life with our conceptions of justice, righteousness, divine reward, and deserved punishment. The material for this course ranges across the religious, philosophical, literary, sociological, and biological, encouraging students to examine how conceptions of death and the afterlife reflect back lived concerns and the struggle to live a life of meaning in our mortal coil. Instructor: Martyn Oliver

This course will consider how our attitudes about our ability to connect with and empathize with one another have been shaped by new technologies, especially social media. Over the course of the semester, we’ll consider what the “problem” of empathy means in our current cultural moment, a time when we have more direct access to one another than ever before, but where we often hear people expressing loneliness, alienation, and even anger when other people feel and think differently than we do. We’ll investigate how much of this struggle is new, as we explore how various philosophers, journalists, sociologists, and anthropologists consider the question of whether it’s truly possible for us to understand one another’s experiences. In addition, we’ll spend time researching online communities, conducting interviews, and speaking with medical actors, community leaders, scientists, and animal rights activists, in order to look more closely at the ways that empathy can build bridges, while also considering how empathy itself might not always be what we truly want or even need in our quest for human connection.Instructor: Arielle Bernstein

Religious ideas around the interaction between religion, society and state have given rise to competing ideological and nationalist movements in America and throughout the world. Methodically evaluating such case studies as Evangelicals, Muslim Brothers, Zionists, and Hindutva advocates, students will engage activists through readings as well as speakers and field visits. Individually and collectively, students will examine how different religious movements have shaped the struggles for identity, democracy and peace. Exploring these thorny issues experientially, students will find this course is founded on the notion that religion can be a source of harmony and peacemaking as it has been a source of division and conflict. A key emphasis of this course will be placed on how to learn about religion and politics and how to carefully examine different perspectives. Instructor: Mohamed Nimer

What does God look like? Is the divine representable? Is it morally dangerous to visualize divinity? Using DC’s rich art museums and centers of contemporary religious practice, this class explores the controversies and orthodoxies surrounding godly representations across geographies, temporalities, and cultures. Drawing on a wide range of sources – from analysis of ancient scriptural texts to engagement with DC community leaders – students will investigate arguments for and against representation of the divine, and analyze the visual strategies used by artists constrained by dogmatic limitations. In a globalized society which regularly witnesses terrorist destruction of religious images, depicting the divine is a complex and ancient problem still relevant today. Instructor: Joanne Allen

Self & Others

Prejudice is the problem that afflicts everyone else. This course assumes that everyone is prejudiced to some extent (even when having the best intentions not to be) and considers potential origins of prejudice. We will examine the individual, socio-cultural, inter-group and systemic bases of prejudice. Through empirical readings, guest speakers, field trips, film, and even fairy tales, we will consider how prejudice develops, is maintained and can be reduced. Studying the many different theories for the origins of prejudice provides a foundation for a multi-faceted approach to combatting and undermining prejudice in ourselves and others. Instructor: Laura Duval

Who lays claim to hip hop when its arts and cultures are shared worldwide? This course traces hip hop's movement over forty years from a transnational, Afro-diasporic South Bronx to six continents. To understand its circulation, this course explores the racialization of United States popular musics, a history and practice of difference-making that profoundly informs the way hip hop has been and continues to be perceived in the US. Students visit DC institutions, conduct research in the residence halls, and learn to make historical, cultural, and musical connections between songs. Instructor: Kendra Salois

For many individuals gender and sex mean the same thing. If you are born with male reproductive organs, you are a male and vice versa for females. For others, sex assignment and gender have a complex relationship. Students will be introduced to the biological basis of sex and explore what it means to be male and female. In this class, we will discuss many of the big questions in gender research and policy. How do different societies view sex and gender? Are there historical accounts we can draw from? How are these views changing? What about other species in the animal kingdom? What can they tell us about gender and sex? This course offers students the opportunity to explore this topic from the cellular aspect to the neurological aspect as well as in the context of evolution. We will not only look at the science behind sex and gender, but also consider the societal implications and how this has shaped politics and policy in the modern era.    Instructor: Adele Doperalski

This course explores not only the scientific basis for mental illness and treatment, but also how cultural, political, and economic forces impact mental health policy. Students consider issues such as whether patients have rights to refuse treatment, how socio-cultural perspectives of mental illness influence treatment, and how mental illness should affect culpability and sentencing in the courtroom. Students read and respond to narratives by the mentally ill, clinical and legal case studies, scientific review articles and congressional testimony, as well as lectures by experts in the field. Students also examine the portrayal of mental illness in film and literature. Instructor: Laurie Stepanek

Diseases, colloquially, are caught, transmitted, and contracted in many different ways: miasmas, bugs, germs, and vectors--to name just a few. How does the language people use to describe illness indicate beliefs about illness? This class studies historical, scientific, and popular accounts of illness to explore this question and others. Students explore whether disease creates immunity or results from lack of it, whether class, sexuality, race, gender, or geography protect against disease or expose people to it, how biomedical narratives of illness inflect cultural practices and social relations, and how the life cycles of pathogenic microorganisms shaped human history. This course's materials include science writing, theory, film, and literature--as well as images and objects from the National Library of Medicine and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology at the Smithsonian Institute. Instructor: Sarah Marsh

Global Justice

When the villain Elektra King tells James Bond "I could have given you the world," he replies coyly, "The world is not enough." But what does "the world" mean anyway? Is, as Bond might imply, the world actually smaller than something more tangible? In some ways, these questions are being confronted by studies of "world cinema": what happens to our grasp of "world culture" when we reduce it to studying one place or, perhaps, one film? And what happens to our perspective when we take those individual close readings and join them back together? Inspired by ideas articulated by Dudley Andrew, Franco Moretti and Catherine Grant, this seminar will examine questions of contemporary world cinema from multiple perspectives (for example: What do international films look like? Why do they look that way? Who watches them?) by working back and forth between concepts of examining single, individual texts (what is this particular film trying to tell me?) and broader, globally relevant contexts (what do we learn when we examine many films in a similar manner?). As part of that project, each student will study in detail a single international film of their choice made within the last 15 years; in addition to some traditional writing and research projects, all students will craft an audiovisual essay - that is, a short 5- to 7-minute film that visually presents their argument concerning their film. All of the pieces will be collected onto a single, public website which together will present our collective response to defining "world cinema." An additional block period for screenings will be required; no previous editing experience necessary, as we will all learn together. Instructor: Jeffrey Middents

Humans seldom seek conflict for its own sake, but nations, regional groupings, and ethnic groups often compete and sometimes clash. In reality, rivalries and conflicts are more often managed than "resolved." The course brings in Washington resources in addressing conflict (embassies, U.S. government, think tanks, regional advocacy groups, etc.) Readings and videos highlight strategy, comparative advantage, anthropological views of conflict, negotiation skills, and "tool kits" for use in a crisis. Simulations of real-life scenarios put students in roles such as governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs, private sector, military, and intelligence organizations. Class modules draw from methods developed at US government agencies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the United Nations. Instructor: Dan Whitman

Millions of refugees and other displaced people are fleeing war and violence from the Middle East to Central America and beyond. This course examines this global phenomenon as well as one of the world's least well-known refugee crises - the forced removal of the Chagossian people from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, by the U.S. military. The class explores topics including the effects and causes of forced displacement, race and racism, environmental refugees, gentrification, and movements to combat human rights violations and assist the displaced. Participants have opportunities to learn about and support refugees and other displaced peoples outside the classroom. Instructor: David Vine

Borders, migration, and globalization are terms invoked by the media and in everyday conversations; but it is important to dig deeply to understand what these terms mean. This course studies policies and the discourse around border security; the cause and effects of international migration; the origin of the term "globalization" and the theories associated with these phenomena. The course accounts for the social context that explains the rise of these ideas, as well as the push-back against what people see as the negative consequences of international migration and trade. Instructor: Ernesto Castañeda

The United States is often referred to as a nation of immigrants. As in centuries past, immigration continues to transform U.S. society. Today, the foreign-born population in the U.S. is the biggest in the world and is more diverse than ever before. Yet, despite its long history and large presence, immigration remains a hotly debated issue that presents complex economic, political, and social challenges for the U.S. This course will examine the complexities of contemporary U.S. immigration from diverse perspectives. The course is organized around three sets of key questions. The first set of questions addresses motivations for immigration and for U.S. immigration policy: Who immigrates to the U.S. and why? Why are some immigrants wanted while others are not? Can the U.S. control immigration? The second set of questions explores the consequences of immigration for immigrants and their families: How do immigrants and their children adapt to U.S. society? What social factors affect their adaptation? Can they become full members of U.S. society? The third set of questions examines the impacts of immigration on U.S. society: Does immigration create social and economic benefits or burdens for the U.S.? Why are immigrants sometimes perceived as a threat to national identity? In discussing these questions, this course will cover a wide range of themes including assimilation and integration, racialization, citizenship, gender, generational conflict, transnationalism, immigration policy, and attitudes toward immigration (e.g. ethnocentrisim, nativism, xenophobia). Instructor: Molly Dondero

How has social media changed how people communicate, collaborate and mobilize? This course will examine whether online tools lead to offline action and how digital advocacy has impacted American culture, fundraising and politics. Students will also explore the role of information literacy, how to engage those without technological access, and the benefits and detriments of hashtag activism. Readings will cover a range of topics, disciplines, theoretical frameworks, and case studies, pushing us to question the role that social media plays in effecting political and social change. Instructor: Stef Woods

One of the challenges to advancing the debate over immigration in the U.S. is the tension between those who are apprehensive and those who are optimistic about the impact of newcomers on the receiving society. This course explores from multiple perspectives what makes migration in the U.S. a challenge for newcomers and for the receiving society. The scope of the course spans from the migrant's personal experience (e.g., why and how leave the home of origin, the stressors of acculturation, a sense of identity in the new homeplace) and changes in the receiving community (e.g., schools, employment, and neighborhoods), to the mutual influence evidenced through attitudes, cuisine, media, and policies. Instructor: Noemi Enchautegui-de-Jesus

Lawful Crime

The U.S. death penalty is primarily applied to murderers for heinous crimes, while at the same time there is evidence of the execution of innocents, as well as unequal punishments such as Life Without Parole (LWOP). How can the U.S. execute when there is a chance for error or when some are punished differently from others? This course will examine U.S. capital punishment through multiple lenses including: case law, guilt/innocence, religion, human rights, morality, and international perspectives. We will consider diverse perspectives of the many key actors involved in capital punishment, including: policy makers, lawyers, judges, witnesses, families, non-profit organizations, the accused, and the convicted. The course content will be delivered through texts, video, site visits, and speakers. Having a prior background in justice and law is not required. Instructor: Jason Fabrikant

Although it might seem that the law provides rules for personal and business conduct that are definitive and clear, in reality the law more often balances complex interests that involve many shades of gray. This course examines a series of legal problems concerning the role of the law in our personal lives as well as in the economic life of our country as part of a community of nations. Although the course examines these problems through a legal lens, it includes economic, business, political and international relations perspectives. They will critically read, discuss, argue and write with an objective of questioning their own views and gaining an understanding of alternative perspectives. Course materials include book chapters, articles, cases, statutory material, blogs and movies. Instructor: Michael Mass

Our practices of holding one another responsible for wrongdoing depend on the attribution of moral agency, and the view that, as human beings, we are not simply causes in the world, but authors of our actions. Contemporary psychological research increasingly reveals, however, that human action is largely influenced by situational factors beyond our control. How, if at all, can we reconcile this tension? This course examines this complex problem through the context of atrocity crimes—crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. What makes these crimes a fascinatingly complex terrain upon which to conduct this inquiry is that atrocity crimes are held to be extraordinary crimes for which perpetrators assume the greatest responsibility, even though they are typically carried out in the most extreme of circumstances that burden the exercise of human capacities. Together, we will take an interdisciplinary look from within the fields of psychology and philosophy into the situational and dispositional causes of atrocity in an effort to develop sound bases for judging perpetrators. You will be challenged to develop your own views as to whether our practices are simply built on a myth of moral agency, or whether we can account for situational influences on human action, without undermining the intelligibility of our attributions of responsibility for atrocity crimes. This course is unique in that it will implicate students’ own moral views. Our discussions will animate deeply held assumptions about human nature and human agency. Students will be encouraged to critically reflect on their own intuitions, identify nodes of disagreement among our authors and their peers, and to articulate reasons in defense of their own considered judgments.Instructor: Nikki Souris

The United States leads the Western world in the use of harsh punishments: life sentences, death sentences, and extended solitary confinement. Each of these punishments is a type of death penalty: life sentence prisoners are sentenced to die in prison, death sentence prisoners are sentenced to be killed in prison, and prisoners sentenced to extended terms in solitary confinement (often in notorious "Supermax" prisons) are sentenced to what has been described as a living death. As a general matter, conditions in American prisons are uniquely painful and degrading, and have been described by researchers as "dehumanizing," "hellish", and ultimately "unsurvivable" in the face of widespread violations of human dignity. This course considers harsh sanctions and the prison experience in general, from different points of view, drawing on the arts (primarily poetry) and the social sciences (primarily criminology). Instructor: Robert Johnson