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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 

Below are the seminars being offered in Fall 2020, grouped together in cohorts. When you get to AU, you will live on the same floor as the students within your cohort.

Fundamental Relationships

This course examines why nannies are trusted with our dearest possession, our children, yet are viewed with ambivalence and why there has been such little curiosity, in terms of biography, social history, and psychology, about the contribution these "second mothers" have had on the children they cared for. The course traces the historical evolution of the governess and her status as a threshold figure, suspended between the middle and working class. Likewise, the nanny enjoys a remarkable intimacy with the family, yet ultimately stands apart from it. Students consider the narrative tropes and pop culture stereotypes the nanny has accumulated over time: the magical nanny who restores order to the family; the nanny as the truer mother; the rival nanny who will steal your husband and your children's love; and the evil nanny who may hurt the children she is charged with protecting, as well as looking at the struggles and marginalization of the immigrant working class nanny. Overall, the course employs governesses and nannies to explore issues of class, gender, feminism, ethnicity and race, globalization, outsider-within status, and ways of mothering. Course materials include fiction, film, memoir, theory, social science, and psychology texts. Instructor: Caimeen Garrett

The nature of the human-animal relationship is complex, pervasive, and paradoxical. Over the course of human history, we have domesticated, exploited, and protected species — we love dogs, eat pigs, and despise rats. In dissecting this relationship, we will examine environmental issues, race, culture, sexuality, gender, and concepts of selfhood. By the end of the term, our inquiries will have entered the humanities, the natural and social sciences, health, business and economics, politics, and philosophy. There will be at least one class trip to an animal shelter, farm animal sanctuary, or wildlife rehabilitation center. Course guests may include a veterinarian, an animal behaviorist, and an anthrozoologist. Instrcutor: Lydia Fettig

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

The complexity of forming intimate relationships is an enduring topic of research, fascination and questioning throughout time. This course offers the unique opportunity for an intensive exploration of how the current state of navigating intimacy in emerging adults was shaped through the lens of modern history. “Navigating Intimacy” exposes students to an exciting and timely selection of study materials crossing print, online and visual mediums. Through their research and classroom discussions, the course will propel them on a multi-dimensional academic journey through the various cultural movements that led them to where they are today -- in unprecedented times of confusion and experimentation with their intimate relationships. Students entering college in 2017 are confronted with a staggering amount of choices in lifestyles and love. This course takes them out of casual clusters of confusing self-help conversations into a unique forum to air and debate diverse views on shifting relationship and sexual behaviors from historic and academic perspectives. Our range of study will include a focus on how former cultural shake-ups such as the emergence of the "wild flappers" of the 1920 opened up puritanical mores. We will also dissect how the sexual revolution of the late 1960-and early-1970s paved the way for the modern dating culture students engage in today. Among the complex problems and questions students face when entering college are whether to date one-one-one, group date, hook-up on Tinder, have friends with benefits, embrace gender/sexual fluidity and deal with how peer pressure affects all of their choices. I plan to enlarge the academic study of intimate relationships to include platonic friendships as well, with research materials and discussions that examine the challenges of forming close bonds with persons of diverse backgrounds, cultures and views. Overall, “Navigating Intimacy” is a crucial introductory step into college life, giving students a broad-based knowledge of love relationships and dating trends, with historical benchmarks to give deeper perspective The goal is to provide a foundation of increased clarity on the complexity of forming healthy intimate relationships – a problem and challenge that binds us all as humans and has perplexed scholars throughout history. Instructor: Iris Krasnow

Critical Surroundings

The turmoil and traumas of modernity have transformed urban spaces into architectural and commemorative battlegrounds. This seminar introduces theories of memory and nationalism alongside controversies over architecture and planning with special case examples from twentieth-century European urban transformations. The dynamic environment of the US capital also informs the course. Intense discussion of weekly readings, short response essays, and a project assessing the intersection between urban change and the politics of memory encourage critical thinking, reading and writing. Instructor: Andrew Demshuk

This course explores the matter that has mattered to humans, from stone and bronze through semiconductors and nanostructures. Cultures, economies, and nation-states flourish and decline based in part on the material resources and technology they can access and control. This course is half about material science, investigating the atom-stuff that we and our world are made of, and half a critical investigation of materialist theories of culture, history, economics, and politics. The primary student assessment is a portfolio demonstrating an integrated understanding of scientific and technical material into social, historical, artistic, economic, philosophical and political contexts. Instructor: Nathan Harshman

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 helps students understand and apply a powerful new approach to solving complex problems through human-centered thinking. Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that is transforming fields from entertainment to international development. Students will learn critical thinking, empathy, how to question assumptions, how to clearly define a problem and other core tools of reasoning. Student teams apply each step of the design thinking process - from research through observation of real people with real problems to brainstorming, prototyping, testing and finally identifying how to implement the solution. The work is creative, collaborative and experiential. You may be making an observation video in one class, filling a wall with sticky notes the next and designing a prototype in the university maker space the next. Instructor: Bill Bellows

Constructing Values

How do we, as individuals and societies, determine the value of things, services, and experiences? Questions like the value of a national park, a child well-educated, or a life prematurely lost are central to both government policy and individual commitments. Through careful reading, critical discussion, short integrative essays, and interactions with local organizations involved in making valuations, students will consider alternative methods of determining “value” and apply these to current social issues. The course will include one or more off-campus visits to relevant local organizations. Instructor: Mieke Meurs

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the Mahabharata, the Popol-Vuh to the Norse Eddas, myth gave people ways to understand the world, to develop cultural identity, to share values. But what is the role of myth in modern cultures? We now tend to use the word “myth” to mean a dangerous falsehood, yet we continue to use stories of the unreal to make sense of the real, to articulate challenging ideas and to substantiate our values and practices. One way we do so is through fantasy: Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen have retraced the classic hero’s journey, and magical lands like Oz and Earthsea reflect our world back to us in new ways. But mythic thinking runs deeper than film and fiction, shaping us in ways both obvious and subtle. Americans use a national “dream,” for example, to understand race- and class-based social hierarchies; families and other communities, such college campuses, develop their own folklore to define themselves. In this course, we will grapple with the ways myth, folklore, and fantasy permeate our lived experiences and cultural interactions: How do traditional myths not only embody culturally specific values, but reveal transcendent human concerns, ones that continue to shape our choices? How does scholarly work from a range of disciplines – including anthropology, psychology, literature, and philosophy – complicate our understanding of myth and its meaning? How do a culture’s fantasies reveal its social realities, making meaning through the assumptions and distortions of fantastical literature and film? (Think of Rowling’s muggles and mudbloods or the political philosophies of Game of Thrones.) Most importantly, we’ll hold this folkloric mirror up to ourselves, to unpack mythologies of self, family, and community, and to examine how the stories we tell can create political and personal conflict, but also the possibility of social cohesion. Instructor: Chuck Cox

From William Shakespeare to Beyonce, much of what we consider original art depends on borrowed text, recycled images, and familiar melodies. But where do we draw the line between influence and plagiarism? In this course, we consider questions of creative ownership. Drawing from scholarship by ethicists, cultural critics, and legal scholars, we will analyze case studies in music, film, literature, and visual art. Working in groups, students will be asked to trace intellectual property attitudes within a chosen genre or institution (i.e. Death Metal, Persian Poetry, Pixar Films). For the final project, after meeting working artists in the D.C. area, students will compose a creative work that borrows responsibly. Instructor: Edward Helfers

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

Power, Place, & Identity

This course examines the emergence, expansion, and erosion of support for the European Union over the course of the twentieth century, and asks: What’s next for Europe? Topics for investigation will include the relationship between nationalism and Europeanism; support for and suspicion of supranational institutions after the First World War; the Third Reich as a new European empire; the relationship between economic growth and peace; the impact of the Iron Curtain on understandings of European geography; the economic and cultural significance of the Euro; and the role of cultural institutions in establishing European identity. The course will combine approaches from anthropology, economics, history, political theory, and political science, and make use of a wide range of secondary and primary sources to address the question of how European leaders and citizens have imagined their relationship to European Union. Instructor: Laura Beers

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

Great minds of every generation have struggled to explain why bad things happen to good people, why humans are cruel to one another, and, especially for the followers of the Abrahamic faiths, how a world can have evil in it if it’s been created by a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. We’ll discuss the religious origins of the classic “problem of evil,” scientific contributions to the discussion, and the legal ramifications of beliefs about evil. This reading-and-discussion heavy course will look for guidance from texts and films nonfiction and fiction (such as philosopher Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and writings on neuroscience from David Eagleman), along with visits to sites around D.C. (such as the Holocaust Museum). Instuctor: Adam Tamashasky

Central for the three Abrahamic traditions, Jerusalem has been a locus of worship and dispute for over two-thousand years. The course proceeds thematically, beginning with the role of Jerusalem in the mythic imagination of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Students then turn to writings reflecting the history of Jerusalem as a physical place and a source of contention for the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the empires of medieval Europe and the Ottomans, the British, the Arabs and the modern State of Israel. Finally, the course turns to the modern era and examines Jerusalem as a modern city and a proxy for disputes over identity, culture, language, and religion. Students visit different places of worship in DC and invite guest speakers representing a diversity of cultures to class. Instructor: Martyn Oliver

The Personal is Political

This inquiry-based seminar examines enduring questions of argumentation and rhetoric in the history of U.S. women's rights advocacy, with particular attention to questions of race and class. Topics include separate spheres ideology, the early suffrage and abolitionist movements, women's initial entry into higher education, protective labor legislation, abortion access, and regulation of sexual violence. The course draws on primary source materials and culminates in a critical essay evaluating argumentation and rhetoric in key documents in the history of U.S. women's rights advocacy. Instructor: Mary Clark

Sequencing the entire human genome has advanced from a 13 year, multi-institutional project, completed in 2001, to a simple automated procedure taking less than 24 hours to complete. Over the past 15 years, costs of sequencing the human genome have dropped from a $3 billion-dollar budget for the original human genome project to $99 for an individual using an kit. With the large decrease in cost and time necessary to complete the sequencing, it is no surprise that having your entire genome sequenced is a rising trend in the Western world, particularly in a melting pot like America. Currently, genomic sequencing is used for personalized medical treatment, prenatal testing, and personal curiosity (ancestry/ethnicity testing). In the future, full genome sequencing may also become a standard for hospitals with newborn babies as well as in the field of forensic science. What information is contained in your genome? What can you learn about yourself by having your genome sequenced? What private information can other people learn from obtaining your genomic sequence? This course will initially focus on answering scientific questions, like what is DNA? How is it inherited? What information does it contain? The latter part of the course will discuss implications of having whole genome sequencing readily available to most the population. For what purposes can DNA sequencing be used? What does this mean for the field of forensics? What other aspects of life could be affected by whole genome sequencing? What does this mean for the level of privacy granted to individuals? Can genomic sequencing open the door for a new form of discrimination? With the rapid rise of technology, will privacy protections and regulations be able to keep up in the digital age? Instructor: Jennifer Axe

Walking can be the ultimate act of freedom. But walking while black, while trans, or without papers, for example, can often risk a violent loss of freedom. Historically, however, marginalized groups have used walking (i.e. the protest march) to fight for freedom itself. Drawing on fields as diverse as environmental literature and philosophy, feminist studies and disability studies, as well as social movement theory, this course considers walking from an individual, social, and environmental perspective. Students reflect deeply on the nature of freedom, the diverse histories and experiences of walking, and walking’s power to prompt largescale political change. This class includes co-curricular walks in several geographical regions of DC, as well as “walking reflections” to guide students’ final projects. Instructor: Perry Zurn


Indigenous peoples persist in spite of concerted efforts to exterminate them across many centuries to the present day. What does it mean to be an indigenous person in a society that is built on your erasure? This course explores this question as a conversation with indigenous voices in different settler states, beginning locally in indigenous North America and also casting our lens globally in areas as diverse as South Africa, Oceania, and the Arab World. The focus on being indigenous emphasizes that indigeneity is a living, dynamic politics, one that is shaped through historical processes, ongoing colonial practices, and indigenous lifeways of resistance. Through analysis of texts, reflective assignments, excursion to sites, films, and interaction with activists and speakers, we examine topics that are central across diverse indigenous-settler spaces, including history-making, the people-land bond, identity politics, knowledge & power, moralities, and decolonization. The course also considers why, in the settler state, everyday citizens are part and parcel of indigenous politics. We assess how colonial myths continue to shape society at large and what that means for the descendants of settler colonialism. In this way, students can begin to understand how their own lives are connected to wider processes that inform being indigenous, as well as what being a partner to indigenous struggles might involve. Instructor: Irene Calis

Mitigating Global Conflict

This course provides an overview of the history and modern issues of peace and war with an emphasis on the institutions in Washington, D.C. (ie. Pentagon, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Amnesty International, State Department, CIA). Through reading ethnographic and historical case studies, as well as theoretical, journalistic, and polemical works, the course explores why and how the United States has engaged in and continues to engages in war while the course simultaneously seeks to help students understand the policy and activist communities at work trying to stop interventions and actions abroad. At its core, the debate over war and peace revolves around key perspectives on the relationships among governance, power, politics and economics. The course plans to examine media coverage of war as it also engages in fictional representations of heroes, patriotism and the debate about war in society. Instructor: Bill Gentile

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

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 65 million displaced people in the world, a significant portion of who are classified as refugees. Who are these people? Where are they coming from? What are the driving forces of today's global displacement? Why is the international community responsible for the global refugee crisis and what does such responsibility involve? This first year course introduces students to the complex and ever growing world of forced displacement and to many of the ethical, legal, moral and political questions surrounding the current refugee crisis in the face of rising populist movements in the west, security concerns, and the overall shift toward criminalization and securitization of migration. The course has a special focus on children and youth and intersectionalities of gender, identity and race.  It will explore the challenges facing the world's displaced and the innovation and resilience that defines the refugee experience. Instructor: Tazreena Sajjad

Although many prefer to view the modern age as one of progress and enlightenment, it has also witnessed some of history’s worst atrocity crimes; that is crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. What makes these crimes so horrific is not only their magnitude but also the fact that they were usually carried out by people who can be considered, more or less, to be normal, even banal. Thus, the persistence of atrocity crimes not only challenges the view that moral progress is inevitable but also raises profound questions about the human capacity to inflict suffering on others, even when they are our neighbors. This course will explore several atrocities of the modern era, including slavery in the United States, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, the Rwanda genocide, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. We will first consider the history of these atrocities and the context in which they occurred. We will then look at the contemporaneous responses to these atrocities by communities, nations and the international community. Why has the response more often than not been one of inaction, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of the extent of the crimes being committed? We will also look at the responses to atrocities after the violence has ended, whether through reparation, war crimes tribunals, truth and reconciliation commissions, or no response at all. What should be the goal of a society’s response to an atrocity it, or many of its members, perpetrated? To what extent have particular responses led to a group’s acknowledgment of responsibility?  And can acknowledgement pave the way towards reconciliation? Finally, we will look at the complex issue of responsibility and how to apportion responsibility. Can only individuals be held responsible for atrocity crimes? If so, the leaders only or also the followers? Finally, does the idea of collective responsibility have merit and, if so, how does this affect the nature of reparation and acknowledgment? Part history and part group psychology, this course is unique in that it will requires students to reflect on the foundations of their own moral views. Our discussions will animate deeply held assumptions about human nature and human responsibility. Instructor: Dan Schneider

Justice, Law, & the State

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

This course focuses on the extent to which inequality and public policy affect a child's experience of childhood. The course draws on historical, sociological and legal perspectives to examine what rights children have (and when they might lose them), the role of the state in protecting children and how the zip code where a child is born may affect a child's life trajectory. The course will primarily focus on children's diverse experiences within the United States, but there will be some content related to international contexts. Instructor: Jane Palmer

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

This interdisciplinary course explores a pressing intellectual challenge of our time: Americans' ambivalent historical relationship with the state. It explores how Americans from the era of Alexander Hamilton to the Age of Obama conceptualize and confront the state by demanding, protesting, prohibiting, and expanding government power over their persons and their property. The course pursues these themes through classics of social and political thought, such as the writings of James Madison, Frederick Lloyd Garrison, John Dewey, and John Maynard Keynes, alongside compelling new frameworks offered by scholars such as sociologists Monica Prasad and Andrew Abbott, journalist Ta-Nahesi Coates, and philosopher Danielle Allen. The course also draws upon visual media, such as screenings of The Wire and Birth of a Nation, while using the social media platform of Twitter to undertake some of the inquiries in public and in real time. Instructor: Gautham Rao

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