Signature Courses

Signature courses do not require prerequisites, and the topics have broad appeal to undergraduates across schools at UVA. Most are interdisciplinary courses and address topics that are both timely and of enduring significance. The courses will be delivered online. Each course has one or two primary instructors, and many of these courses will also include guest lecturers.

To determine whether a class fills a major/minor requirement, enroll in the class and check your AR Form or contact the major/minor department directly.

1. PSYC 2559 An Introduction to Cognition and Cognitive Biases

Faculty: Hudson Golino, Mariana Teles Santos Golino (Psychology)

During the COVID-19 pandemic you might have experienced the phenomenon of the random and imperceptible thoughts that quickly popped up in your mind, sometimes leaving a trail of emotional and behavioral consequences. How the mind works is a question that have been contemplated for centuries but only in the past 60 years has been scientifically studied by cognitive psychologists. Knowing how our mental process are structured and how they function is a key to achieve higher levels of awareness and control over our mind and behavior. However, as we can see during the pandemic, we don’t operate rationally in the world all the time. There are a number of situations where we are actually behaving without the use or supervision of conscious logical processes. Throughout this course, we’ll be learning about the structure and functioning of mental processes, as well as when and why we have difficulty making decisions and thinking under uncertainty. The goal is to use our knowledge of cognitive psychology and decision making under uncertainty to learn about how humans think, and when we fail to think clearly. We believe that knowing how mental processes and cognitive biases work can help us understand our current global situation.

New Curriculum: Living Systems
Traditional Curriculum: Social Science

2. ARTS 1559 The Art of Resistance

Faculty: Mona Kasra & Lydia Moyer (Drama and Art)  

From hand-lettered signs to Instagram drawings to TikTok videos, what is the role of powerful visual statements in today’s protest movements? What motivates protesters in their choices of visual communication and modes of media dissemination? How is creative resistance designed and formed, and from what iconography, symbols, and visual meanings does it draw? This course will focus on the role of the contemporary visual culture in staging social movements and the ways in which grassroots activists employ visually-oriented practices as a means of political resistance and collective mobilization. Drawing connections between a wide variety of recent protests and uprisings in the US and around the world, we will explore how 21st-century citizens articulate and express their political voice through a variety of text, visual, and graphics, such as digital images, memes, posters, t-shirts, and murals. We will especially look at how protesters harness the speed and immediacy of social media and digital technologies to raise awareness about critical social, cultural, and political issues of our time, such as racial injustice, human rights, COVID-19 pandemic, the environment, and climate change. This course emphasizes exploration, creativity, collaboration, and student-centered learning through readings, multimedia presentations, discussions, workshops, and guest lectures. Guest lectures will include activists, artists, and protesters from recent social movements such as Black Lives Matter, Appalachians Against Pipelines, and Extinction Rebellion, many of whom have connections to local Charlottesville and surrounding Virginia communities. Students will be evaluated based on reflective writing assignments on course content and a collaborative project-based final assignment. Lydia Moyer (Professor, Department of Art) is a visual artist and media maker whose creative work engages with radical thought through visual means including democratic multiples like posters and zines. Mona Kasra’s (Assistant Professor, Department of Drama) research trajectory involves exploring the confluence of media technologies, art, and culture and reflecting on the impact of emerging media on personal, political, and creative expression. Her recent publications have examined political and theoretical questions about the power of online images in our digital culture and cross-culturally.

New Curriculum: Artistic, Interpretive, & Philosophical Inquiry
Traditional Curriculum: Humanities/Fine Arts Category

3. HIST 2559/MDST 2559 Democracy in Danger

Faculty: Will Hitchcock and Siva Vaidhyanathan. (History and Media Studies)

Democracy is in trouble today. Why? This course explores the growing threats to democracy in the United States and globally. Topics include:  the impact of xenophobia, racism and radical nationalism on democracy; the rise of far-right media; the growth of White Power militias; legal barriers against voting, immigration and citizenship; as well as the impact of social media and cyber-based disinformation.

New Curriculum: Social & Economic Systems
Traditional Curriculum: Historical Studies

4. ENGR 2595/PLAD 2500 Pandemics Beyond the Headlines: COVID-19 

Faculty: Roseanne Ford and David Leblang (Chem Engr and Politics/Batten)

Pandemics are complex scientific and social phenomena, yet our conversation on these topics tend to be soundbites. This course brings together best practices from social and biological sciences to engage students in a deeper understanding of the causes, consequences of, and response to COVID-19 as the exemplar pandemic of our time. Suggested topics include the microbiology of novel viruses, theory, practice, and ethics of vaccine and drug production and distribution, local and global policy response, the effects of pandemics on global aid, trade, and mobility, and effective messaging to combat disinformation and to support safe practices. We will use an interactive pandemic simulation from the Center for Simulation and Gaming at the Batten School, lectures from experts in diverse topics from across fields, small discussion groups, and student-led collaborative presentations.

New Curriculum:
PLAD 2500: Science and Society
ENGR 2595: None

5. ENWR 2520 Global Advocacy, Democracy, and Public Narrative

Faculty: Stephen Parks (English)

In the face of rising authoritarianism, democratic activists across the globe are organizing and advocating for fundamental political rights. Over the ten days of this J-Term course, students will have the opportunity to meet, discuss, as well as work with such global activists, discovering how they craft public narratives for a better future, develop inclusive strategies, and build movements for change. In the process, students will also participate in a series of workshops designed to enable them to replicate such strategies in their own communities. As such, each class session will be an interactive discussion, marked by dialogue, break-out rooms, and workshop activities. 

Engaging effectively in democratic activism, however, requires more than pragmatic skills. Activists must possess their own sense of the meaning of democracy, premised in the political and cultural traditions of their communities/countries. They must understand theories of public narrative, the local concepts that speak to inclusion and unity. And they must possess an understanding of how change occurs, so that a conception of democracy and public narrative produce results for those too often on the wrong side of privilege. To this end, students will also learn such theories, conceptions, and understandings through historical case studies and seminal articles on democracy in the 21st century.

Students will be expected to write a short biographical essay, a conceptual paper on democratic activism, and participate in a group project to develop a campaign for democratic rights.  

New Curriculum: Artistic, Interpretive, & Philosophical Inquiry; Second Writing
Traditional Curriculum: Second Writing Requirement 

6. PLAN 3810/ARCH 3500 Climate Justice in Cities: Designing for Systems Change

Faculty: Barbara Brown Wilson and Jeana Ripple. (Architecture)

This course introduces design and systems thinking techniques to address the interrelated crises of climate change and social inequity in U.S. cities. The intersectional impact of climate change and social inequity is at the heart of a broad contemporary congressional resolution entitled the Green New Deal [GND]. The GND proposal sets targets within a “just transition” framework but leaves much of the process up for further interpretation. This course asks how such transformational change might work in cities- introducing students to design and systems thinking techniques to examine the socio-technical context, challenges, and opportunities that animate systems change in the built world.

The course focuses inquiry on the future of cities in the U.S., through two organizing themes: (week 1): roots of crisis critically examines the impacts of development policies and practices on our globe and the health, economics, and welfare of its inhabitants; (week 2) building agency explores the avenues humans can pursue to redress our harmful effects on the Earth and on one another, viewing cities as complex adaptive systems worthy of radical reimagination. Students will learn through readings, discussions, lectures, and interactive workshops to develop interdisciplinary creative problem-solving skills for a just and resilient future.

7. RELB 2165 Buddhist Meditation and the Modern Secular World

Faculty: David Germano, Kurtis Schaeffer (Religious Studies)

This course focuses on the popular topic of Buddhist meditation from the perspective of historical traditions, contemporary scientific research, and modern secular adaptations. Students learn secular contemplative practices firsthand in a Contemplative Lab, and thus it addresses student suffering, anxiety, and resilience in theoretical and practical ways. Each of the ten days we will explore a major type of Tibetan Buddhist meditation - attentional practices of focus, sensory meditations, analysis and insight practices, compassion and empathy, narrative meditations, ritual communion building, performance visualization, body-based practices, open awareness, and spontaneous creativity. In general, we will explore the contemplative tradition in its original Buddhist contexts, look at scientific research on understanding such practices’ mechanisms and impact, study secular adaptations in professional and personal areas (health care, education, entrepreneurship), and experiment hands-on with related forms of secular contemplation. We have developed a highly interactive classroom experience in which students do exercises combined with peer-to-peer listening practices and faculty short talks in order to replace one way lectures with dynamic learning processes.

New Curriculum: Artistic, Interpretive, & Philosophical Inquiry; Cultures & Societies of the World
Traditional Curriculum: Humanities: Moral and Philosophical Perspectives; Non-Western Perspectives 

8. HIST 2559/RELG 2559 Whiteness: History of a Racial Category

Faculty: Jalane Schmidt and Andrew Kahrl.  (Religious Studies and History/AAAS)

The insidious systematic injustices resulting from white supremacy, and the phenomena of “white privilege” and "white fragility" have been recent topics of debate in the U.S., where a resurgent white nationalism has unleashed violent political conflict. This course examines the necessary prior question: what is "whiteness"? Often functioning as an unmarked category of putative racelessness against which raced “Others” were contrasted, whiteness was treated as self-evident and eluded critical examination. Upon closer review, the shifting definitions of whiteness reveal the inherent instability of its boundaries, and the efforts to police them. Through assigned readings, screening of documentary films, guest lectures, and discussion, the course traces the historical processes through which disparate, previously unrelated (and sometimes competing) ethnic groups were welded together into a new racial category known as "white." We will analyze who is categorized as white—by whom and why—by examining how institutions constructed this racial category and what performative practices are deemed constitutive of whiteness.

New Curriculum: Historical Perspectives
Traditional Curriculum:
HIST: Historical Studies requirement
RELG: Humanities/Moral and Philosophical Perspectives Category

9. PSYC 3559 How to Build a Healthy Human Brain

Faculty: Jessica Connelly and James Morris (Psychology)

The social, mental, and physical well-being of humans is dependent upon slow maturation of a number of critical biological systems over the course of the lifespan. Biological and environmental influences on the maturation of these systems are vast and varied. Though unique, contributions of developmental environment and biological predisposition are often considered as independent predictors but modern science has demonstrated time and again that the two are richly intertwined. This Signature J-Term survey course examines how early life experience shapes the function of our genome, impacts the development of brain systems involved in the complexities of human life, and sets the stage for our abilities to forge new social bonds that promote healthy lives and rewarding personal experiences. Through lectures from thought experts across several fields of science, we will discuss how modern society has introduced many challenges to these developmental experiences including social, environmental and educational inequality, which are a direct threat to these natural human processes. The Professors Connelly and Morris are UVA Psychology professors and experts in the field of translational neuroscience. Both have served as College Fellows, working with many of the best thought leaders and course design experts on grounds. With extensive understanding of the challenges and opportunities of educating first year scholars, we present a course opportunity for all who wish to better understand how to build a healthy human.

New Curriculum: Science and Society
Traditional Curriculum: Social Science

10. MDST 3559 Race, Protest, and the Media 

Faculty: Camilla Fojas and Shilpa Dave. (Media Studies)

What images of protest are imprinted on our collective memory by the media? How does media frame and influence how protests centered on racial justice become touchstone generational events? Our class will frame contemporary movements around BLM, Undocumented and Unafraid, protests against the Muslim ban, and the success of groundbreaking texts such as Black Panther through the lens of key media moments of historical protest. We will study the rise of the Power Movements and Ethnic Studies in the 1960s, the Immigration Rights movement that rose in response to anti-Asian and Anti-Latinx violence along with analysis of the Rodney King beating and subsequent L.A. Riots of the 1990s. We will analyze the mediations of key historical moments along with their engagement by mainstream and independent media.

New Curriculum: Artistic, Interpretive, & Philosophical Inquiry

11. ANTH 2559/PHIL 2500 The Past, Present, and Future of Humankind

Faculty: Erin Eaker and Rachel Most (Philosophy and Anthropology)

What does it mean, in the present day, to be a human being? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Drawing from the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and philosophy, we will explore the deep history of how we—the species Homo sapiens sapiens—evolved. We will focus the evolution of those traits that seem so distinctively human, such as language, abstract thought, agriculture, art, mythmaking, and morality. We will study what makes civilizations rise and fall, and we will take stock of where we are as a species at the present moment. Will the traits that made us such a successful species help us rise to the challenges of the future? Or are we doomed by our very nature?

New Curriculum: Artistic, Interpretive, & Philosophical Inquiry
Traditional Curriculum: ANTH - Social Sciences requirement; PHIL - Humanities requirement