University Seminars (USEMS): Spring 2015

University Seminars (USEMS) are designed to give first-year students the opportunity to develop critical-thinking skills and explore new ideas in an environment that encourages interactive learning and intensive discussion. The seminars are based on ideas that have changed the way we think about our relation to the world around us. The seminars are given by prominent faculty in departments and schools across the University, carry two or three hours of credit, and are restricted to 18 first-year students during the initial course enrollment. If space is remaining, second-, third-, and fourth-year students may enroll using a Course Action Form.

Refer to the Student Information System Course Catalog for a list of specific offerings each semester.

America through Russian Eyes
2 Credit Course


Clemons Library 322

Yuri Urbanovich, Lecturer

This course explores American-Russian relations in their historical and contemporary perspective.  We will employ the skills and tools of the historian, political scientists, geographer, psychologist, and student of culture, including literature and film, to analyze factors that have shaped mutual perceptions and misperceptions.

Clones & Genomes:  New Biology
2 Credit Course

Thursday 2:00-3:50pm

PLSB 403

Michael Wormington, Associate Professor

Cloning humans, the creation of genetically identical individuals from differentiated adult cells, and once the exclusive domain of science fiction, has moved to the front pages of reputable newspapers and prestigious scientific journals.  In 1997, the first scientifically substantiated report of a cloned mammal, Dolly the ewe, fomented considerable debate and discussion, and evoked vigorous responses from politicians, pundits, professors, theologians, and entrepreneurs alike. In the past fifteen years, Dolly has been joined by a plethora of cloned mammals.  A comparable method of gene transfer used to propagate these cloned animals has been successfully used to treat female infertility in humans and the generation and exploitation of human stem cells and "therapeutic cloning" continues to raise ethical and science policy issues. The completion of a "first draft" of the human genome sequence thirteen years ago has provided us for the first time with the genetic "blueprint" for our species. This course will address the fundamental importance of cloning organisms to developmental and reproductive biology and the enormity of the impact of the human genome sequence on human biology. Students will gain an appreciation for the intellectual and methodological challenges posed by these questions and the experimental approaches employed to answer them. It is particularly timely, that the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to John Gurdon, who pioneered the technology of nuclear transplantation to reprogram differentiated cells, and Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered the ability to directly reprogram somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells by altering the expression of as few as 4 genes. As such, we will devote a good deal of discussion towards these pioneering achievements. The applications of these technologies and their moral, ethical, and legal ramifications will be considered and discussed in a variety of contexts. Topics and assigned readings will be derived from the scientific literature, books, newspapers and online resources.

Dying, Death and Bereavement
2 Credit Course

Tuesday or Wednesday 2:00-3:50pm

New Cabell Hall 415

Richard Steeves, Professor Emeritus

This course is an exploration of thinking about dying, death and bereavement.  Although western culture and American culture in particular has a reputation for being death denying, we do in facto confront images of and talk about death on almost a daily basis.  This course will not be a study about death and dying in the news and popular media, rather it will be about those who have thought about our mortality seriously and extensively.  The course will be divided into three foci:  (a) writers and poets and playwrights, (b) death professionals such as hospice workers, funeral directors and grief counselors, (c) social scientists who study homicide, suicide, bereavement and related topics, (c) social scientists who study homicide, suicide, bereavement and related topics.  The goal is to explore different ways of thinking about what may truly be beyond our understanding, death.

Genocide and Mass Killing
2 Credit Course

Monday 4:00-5:50pm

New Cabell Hall 064

Jeffrey Rossman, Associate Professor

One of the defining features of the 20th century was the repeated use of genocide and other types of one-sided mass killing by states against internal and external populations.  In this seminar, we will explore these phenomena from a theoretical and historical point of view, with particular attention to ethnic and racial genocides (e.g., Armenia, the Holocaust, Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the mass killings that occurred under Communist regimes (e.g., Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia).  While the experience of victims will be of central concern, we will also examine the experience and motivations of perpetrators, the explicit and implicit goals of the genocidal state, and the response -- or lack of response -- by the international community.  Requirements include readings of about 150 pages per week, active participation in class discussions, two four-page analytical book reviews and a final eight-page analytical review essay.

Issues in American Education

2 Credit Course

Mondays 6:30-8:30pm

Dell 1 104

Stephen Plaskon, Associate Professor

This class with explore contemporary issues in American Education in a novel and unique way using film, personal storytelling, interviews, discussion, and debate.  Participants will be presented with a set of issues in public schooling and will select those to be explored and discussed. All will present on their selected issues in class debate and discussion sessions.

Journeys through Hell
2 Credit Course

Tuesday 6:00-7:50pm

New Cabell Hall 111

Dariusz Tolczyk, Associate Professor

Extreme experiences of evil and oppression – concentration camps, prisons, mass terror, and other forms of victimization – have often been presented as opportunities for unusual personal growth and spiritual ascent.  From archaic initiation rites of diverse cultures through ancient Greek, Roman, and Biblical wisdom, as well as many literary traditions, the point has been stressed repeatedly that being exposed to suffering and oppression not only can make us better, stronger, and more enlightened human beings but, in fact, tends to be necessary condition of such profound ennoblement.

Is this true?  Survivors of extreme experiences of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, Communist prisons of Eastern Europe, and Chinese mind-reform camps ask this question while describing their own ordeals.  What can we learn from them about humanity, both in general and our own?  In this seminar, we will explore and discuss cultural, religious and intellectual roots of the conviction that extreme oppression can ennoble us.  We will confront these traditions with survivors’ writing s about Nazi and Communist oppression.  In our explorations, we will ask some profound questions:  What motivates human beings under extreme conditions?  Are human beings good by nature?  How does mass-scale evil originate in history?  How do diverse cultural backgrounds affect ways in which people react to these assaults against their humanity?  Our discussions will allow us to explore human experiences not directly accessible for most of us, and confront our own assumptions with discoveries of those who lived through extreme experiences.  Readings include short excerpts from the Bible, Plato, Juvenal and some more recent thinkers, as well as prison/camp memoirs by Elie Wiesel, Aleksandr Solzhenistyn Zhang Xialniang, Eugenia Ginzburg, Varlam Shalamov, Gustaw Herling, Tadeusz Borowski.  Films “Korczak” (by Andrzej Wajda), “Life is Beautiful” (by Roberto Benigni), and “Interrogation” (by Ryszard Bugajski) will be viewed outside of class and discussed in class.

Plagues & Public Health
2 Credit Course

Thursday 3:00-4:50pm

Pavilion 108

Carl Trindle, Professor Emeritus

Infectious diseases – opportunistic, resourceful, immortal – present a continuing challenge to the world order prosperity and security.  We seek to learn from the triumphs and failures of the heroes of public health so to be prepared for the coming plagues

Preventing Gender Violence

2 Credit Course

Monday 2:00 – 3:50pm

Pavilion VIII, 103

Kathryn Laughon, Associate Professor

Popular discussions about violence against girls and women grossly exaggerate some forms of violence and seriously minimize others, while presenting violence as inevitable.  In this case, we will explore theories of violence prevention, what the data tell us about how girls and women experience violence across their lifespan, and how female-directed violence is depicted in newspapers, magazine and entertainment media.  With an emphasis on prevention of violence, students will critically examine how and why images of violence are presented and distorted in the news, songs, movies, and other media.  Course materials include academic journal articles, newspaper articles, fiction, websites, and movies.  Students will have the opportunity to observe court cases and meet with a prosecutor, victim advocates, survivors of violence, and sexual assault nurse examiners.  Students will work with a local advocacy agency on some aspect of their violence prevention programs. 

Reading/Writing:  A Life

2 Credit Course

Monday 3:30-5:20pm

New Cabell Hall 283

Virginia Moran, Associate Direct, Women’s Center

This university Seminar will look closely at the literature that is or purports to be the story of someone’s life and examine the ways in which a biography, or personal essay is a work of art or literature.  We will read widely from full autobiographies to personal essays, and discuss the form and function of these genres.

We will spend time exploring the nexus of the “real” and the “fictional.”  Equal parts philosophy, reading of texts and practical application of the techniques that are examined, this is a course for anyone interested in the genres of fiction, personal essay, and biography and who would like to explore writing their own story or one that is created.  We will use a variety of critical lenses-philosophy, critical theory, and cultural studies-to examine these texts.  We will discuss the strategies as a group, critique them, and then put them into practice.

Righting Unrightable Wrongs
2 Credit Course

Friday 2:00 – 3:50pm

Pavilion VIII, 103

Frank Dukes, Lecturer and Director, Institute for Environmental Negotiation

From indigenous peoples pursuing a return of lands and sovereignty, to Japanese-Americans memorializing the experience of interment during WWII, to African-Americans seeking redress for slavery and its aftermath of segregation and discrimination, many groups have sought to right past harms and ongoing injustices.  Can individuals, communities and nations ever make right what appear to be irreparable wrongs?  This course examines that question for problems ranging from genocide and slavery to environmental contamination and racial discrimination.  The literature of reparations and restorative justice will be enhanced by examining specific cases within the instructor’s experience.  These include a site affected by severe environmental contamination and Japanese-American internment during World War II (Bainbridge Island, WA); a city coming to terms with killings of labor organizers and civil rights workers through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Greensboro, NC); and Native American communities in Virginia seeking redress for degradation of traditional cultural properties.

The Fate of Jews in the Russian Empire, the USSR and the Post-Soviet Region
3 Credit Course

Mondays 3:30-6:00pm

Clemons Library 322

Yuri Urbanovich, Lecturer

This course offers an examination of the experience of Russian Jews from the end of the 18th century to the present, focusing on the late Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods.  Students will gain an appreciation of both the history and culture of Russian Jewry as well as the interplay of ethnicity and politics.

Werner Herzog’s Ecstatic Truth

2 Credit Course

Tuesday 1:00-2:50pm

New Cabell Hall 056

Lydia Moyer, Associate Professor

Through readings, screenings, and discussion, we will examine the non-fiction films of German director Werner Herzog who has been making movies since the early 1960s.  Focusing exclusively on his documentaries, we will critically discuss the relationship between maker, audience, and subject with particular attention to Herzog’s philosophy of Ecstatic Truth in documentary and his persona as a filmmaker.  We’ll entertain questions about why there are so few women in his films, privilege as a white Northern European, and what we can learn from his practice as a filmmaker because of and in spite of these concerns.  Students will have practice as a filmmaker because of and in spite of these concerns.  Students will leave the class with insight into the notion of truth as it relates to documentary film and a significant exposure to the work and philosophy of Mr. Herzog.