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Johnson, Kyle
Assistant Director, University College and Sophomore LLCs

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University College Program 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

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University College (UC) Seminars

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 

Seminars grouped together in cohorts. When you get to AU, you will live on the same floor as the students within your cohort.

For Academic Year 2022-2023, the UC theme is Welcome to the Jungle. See below for more information about this year's cohorts.

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Reservations for University College for AY 22-23 are closed. To reserve your space for AY-23-24, please check back soon for more information.

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Cohort A - Giraffes

How can outside agents interested in helping build community through music do so in a way that honors the interests and traditions of those they are trying to help rather than imposing their own cultural biases upon them? In this seminar, we will establish a context and then examine real-world models where community building through music is being employed and analyze the effectiveness of these efforts. We will delve into well-intentioned initiatives that have negative effects, explore why that is, identify more successful models and define why they are more productive. More specifically, we will explore musical programs in Kenya, as well as inner city and rural programs here in the United States. This seminar will form the basis for the singular theme of empowering and transforming people through music using teaching and performance models. Professor Nancy Snider

Universities teach about the past and the present in depth, but what about the future? This course’s dual goals are to develop an anticipatory future consciousness and to equip each student with practical methods and first-hand experience in a futures study. Future awareness comes from thoughtful reading, discussions, and guests; Future methods are qualitative, including creation of future scenarios, and a first-hand future study at a local organization. Professor Erran Carmel

As a part of this course, students will actively serve with a nonprofit agency or school in the DC area to apply their course knowledge.

This course examines the conversation on poverty in Washington, DC through scholarship, research, and community-based service-learning with an afterschool program. Horton's Kids is a local nonprofit that serves families in Ward 8's Wellington Park neighborhood, where the average household income is below $10,000 a year. Students discover how Horton's Kids has evolved since 1989 using a comprehensive service model to address the cyclical needs of the community and adopting more inclusive practices. Students connect their work in the community to their work in the classroom by researching, writing, and reflecting on poverty in this neighborhood. Students learn how to reimagine service, focusing on reciprocity and equity. Readings cover a range of perspectives, from historians, sociologists, psychologists, public health scholars and professionals, service-learning and social justice scholars, community partners, community members, nonprofit professionals, policy makers, contemporary public intellectuals, and cultural critics. Professor Amanda Choutka

People everywhere rely on clothing for protection and self-expression, yet the global clothing industry is rife with economic and environmental injustice. Garment workers make very little money while international clothing companies turn tremendous profits, with climate change and the global pandemic worsening already strained conditions. In this course, students will explore the competing needs and interests of people throughout the global clothing supply chain and consider ways these needs can be reconciled more justly. Students will study the complexity of this industry by engaging with local textile exhibitions and by researching one of the many factors influencing the global clothing industry. Professor Angela Geosits

Cohort B - Pandas

Art is all about context. As viewers, we are compelled to interpret what an artist is saying in their work. While we may not understand an artist’s intention, or the artwork we encounter, we trust that it means something. Artists often use their craft to question power, expertise, and exclusivity either directly or obliquely; we rely on artists to reflect the world and culture we live in. In this seminar, students will explore varied concepts such climate change, animal rights, and sports through art. We will look at contemporary art in the most expansive of ways--through context, personal and cultural experiences, and current events. This course is meant to debunk mystified and rarified ideas around art and artmaking to highlight how we can access and experience art in the everyday. Professor Tim Doud

This course is designed to teach students how individual choices directly influence future earning potential, long term financial well-being and personal happiness. It integrates economics, accounting, psychology and personal finance concepts to help students of all majors make informed financial decisions and better understand the implications of economic events.  The course will provide the critical skills needed to make sound personal financial decisions within a social and institutional context. The finance skill development will be balanced with considerations about happiness and contentment. Topics will focus on the tradeoffs between instant gratification and long-term well-being through products such as: saving, investing, borrowing, insurance, retirement planning and the development of future financial plans. Professor Octavian Ionici

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. Professor Mieke Meurs

Cohort C - Poison Dart Frogs

How can individuals grow their own resilience to prevent mood disorders? What are society-based systems and policies that minimize mental health risks and promote the prevention of mental illness? This course will explore the complexity of preventing mental illness, specifically the mood disorders of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, in the US. We will use an interdisciplinary approach to explore the challenges that researchers, clinicians, and policy-makers face in preventing mood disorders. Through a mix of readings including the popular press, social media, academic articles, memoir, and self-exploration texts; reflection and active seminars; field trips to view 'outsider art'; and homework on building personal and communal resilience, students will work on two underlying complex problems:  how to integrate individual and systemic responsibility for mental wellness and how people change. Professor Cynthia Potter

In an episode of The Walking Dead, a zombie has its brain scanned. The scan reveals that the brain stem, an important, but primitive basis of consciousness, is very much alive.  In this view, zombies have consciousness, and thus consciousness cannot be used to distinguish zombies from humans.  Although human beings have higher cortical functions than zombies, like zombies, we have little awareness of our brain’s activities. Even worse, neuroscience submits conscious awareness can get in the way of high performance, as when a tennis player has to actively think about her strokes.  Finding ways to cope with the limits of human awareness, our inner zombies,  may be the greatest challenge for our times. And as climate change limits our attention to mere survival, what will being human mean? In addition to “The Walking Dead,” we will explore such questions in works of literature (Blake, Mary Shelley, Ishiguro), philosophy (Hurley, Dennett), and neuroscience (Damasio, Ramachandran). Professor Richard Sha

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). Professor Adam Tamashasky

How does scientific change happen? Science historian Thomas Kuhn argues that the great revolutions of science occurred not when a new fact appeared, but when scientists started to approach the world with new paradigms. This course invites students to reflect on the human and social dimensions of science by examining critical moments in history when scientific thinkers changed their approach in fundamental ways. By learning about changes in scientific thinking from the past, students will work to identify their own assumptions and paradigms, in science and beyond. Professor John Bracht

Cohort D - Hawks

This two-part course begins by exploring how we understand "the international." Usually, we tend to think of the international as being defined by the line between the "domestic" and the "foreign." However, this line is often moving, blurrier than we think, and even appears in new places. By engaging students with a range of material that contains expressions of "the international" from different scholarly fields, the course first asks: what makes some topic or idea international? What are international issues or problems? The course will draw on the history of empires, law, and international relations, spy literature and film, diplomatic memoirs, environmental studies, and contemporary and historical business studies and mass media. By analyzing and discussing this material together, the course attempts to develop a sense of how the international is constituted and defined. In the second part of the course, students will explore different ethical foundations to consider the questions that arise with the variety of interpretations of the international. In other words, what are the intersections between "what is the international" and "what is the good." What are the different ethical perspectives that form the foundation for different obligations and responsibilities to the international? Philosophical selections will be drawn from Greek, modern European, Confucian and other non-Western, and contemporary philosophy.  Professor Jason Rancatore

This course explores the dynamic and complex relationship between identity and post-modern intra-state and international conflict with the emphasis on the role of different forms of identities both in the emergence of conflicts and in processes of conflict resolution and transformation. For example, ethnic groups participate in civil wars more than any other types of dissident groups (i.e. as we see in conflicts in the Balkans, Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and many others). At the same time, religion plays an increasing role in global civil conflict, where sexual violence is a widely acknowledged threat. The common theme across these problems is identity in all its forms such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and gender and others. This course explores the questions of what identity is and where identities originate. Why do most contemporary conflicts center in, one way or another, on identity and what are some solutions to conflict where perpetrators and targeted individuals or groups often espouse divergent identities? During the course students will gain a deeper understanding of how identity is embedded in context, how identity is manipulated for political ends and how identity conflict may be resolved. By exploring the origin of diversity and thinking critically about their own instrumental and sincere identity preferences as well as that of others, students will learn the complexity of the interaction between identity and conflict as well as some fundamental principles of conflict resolution. Professor Gul Gur

Why do interstate conflicts occur? What causes them to become intractable or to escalate in intensity such that they threaten regional or international security? To what extent could, or should the U.S. play a role in helping to defuse or resolve them? This course addresses these questions through an examination of three "flashpoints" of conflict in Asia: Taiwan Strait, the East/South China Sea, and the Korea Peninsula. It explores the origins and dynamics of each of these disputes and the interplay between them insofar as US interests and involvement are concerned. We will investigate the tangled roots and evolution of these disputes through various lenses, focusing on competing historical narratives and grievances, geopolitical and resource-related rivalries, and issues related to domestic politics and national identity. In looking at dispute dynamics, we will consider the relative military and other capabilities of and the "tools" deployed by the disputants as well as the interests and involvement of extra-regional powers, the United States in particular. In addressing the issue of whether/how these conflicts can be managed or resolved, we will consider the various initiatives and instruments that have been, or could be employed. Professor John Calabrese

This course exposes students to the periodically evolving implementation of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR), begun in 2013. Students work to understand the different forces that impact international trade, as it relates to China’s Silk Road. Following a brief, careful study of the historic Silk Road, students explore the current situation of the OBOR. Students conduct a critical analysis of the OBOR’s current status, exploring how the countries involved are attempting to make it work for their mutual benefit and how additional changes may be made. Professor Ghiyath Nakshbendi

Cohort E - Asiatic Lions

Watergate. Iran-Contra. The Clinton impeachment and the Trump impeachment. Major scandals have been a recurring feature of several modern American presidencies, and studying them as a group can provide insight into the following key questions: how do we define a presidential scandal? How have presidents used the powers of their office to respond to them? How have changes in political norms, technology, the media environment, and other factors influenced scandals in recent years? What impact do presidential scandals have on our political system? This course will focus on several examples of important recent presidential scandals, considering the behavior of the major actors from the perspectives of presidential leadership, executive power, presidential-congressional relations,and the legal system. Students will not need to have prior knowledge of American government, politics or these scandals. Professor Jeffrey Crouch

 America 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: individuals sentenced to life are sentenced to die in prison (death by incarceration), individuals sentenced to death are sentenced to be killed in prison (death by execution, usually lethal injection), and those sentenced to extended terms in solitary confinement are consigned to a “living death” in which they exist as objects to be stored rather than live as human beings with a modicum of autonomy, security, and relationships with other human beings. As a general matter, conditions in American prisons are uniquely painful and degrading, and have been described by researchers as “dehumanizing” and “hellish,” and ultimately “un-survivable” in the face of psychological damage produced by routine violations of human dignity. We will consider harsh sanctions—starting with arrest and moving on to incarceration in jails and prisons, and culminating in executions in the death house. To better understand the dimensions of harsh justice, we will draw on the arts (primarily poetry) and the social sciences (primarily criminology, sociology, and some economics). Professor Robert Johnson

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. Professor William Gentile

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 United States execute when there is a chance for error or when some are punished differently from others? This course examines U.S. capital punishment through multiple lenses including case law, guilt/innocence, religion, human rights, morality, and international perspectives. The course considers 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. Course content is delivered through texts, video, site visits, and speakers. Professor Jason Fabrikant

Cohort G - Sloths

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. Professor Heather Elms

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, 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. Professor Edward Helfers

With an overwhelming scientific consensus favoring the prevalence of theories that accelerating changes in the earth’s climate exist and are due to anthropogenic causes, the problem of conveying the need for policy changes to mitigate and adapt to global warming is becoming one for social scientists as much as for natural scientists. This course explores the gap between scientific consensus and political mobilization, seeking to understand the politics of climate change in the U.S., in other countries vital to any meaningful international climate change agreement, and at the international level. We will start by addressing ethical questions about humanity’s interaction with nature and will undertake interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems, inquiry-based learning (meaning a “hands on” approach to solving concrete problems using teamwork and creativity), and more extensive and direct contact with faculty. The course frames the specific policy debates in philosophical terms by considering assumptions about relations between humanity and nature implied in climate change discussions, and also in evolving policy objectives of “mitigation” versus “adaptation.” Students will gain a fundamental understanding of climate change policy (and its obstacles) across a range of nations. We will consider the difference between how authoritarian nations and democracies frame the issue, and how vital “issue framing” is to whether public support is galvanized (or not) for solutions. After considering broad ethical questions about the relationship between humans and the environment and how those may be changing, we consider evidence of climate change and how public policy has addressed this problem (and not addressed it). We review the emergence and evolution of these challenges on the global stage, considering political science theories of public opinion and interest group pluralism and how these affect how positions are aggregated for policy consideration by politicians. Then, we take up the choices of particular nations as a few meet the challenges, and many do not. Special attention will be given to climate change policy in the United States, which has changed dramatically over the past couple of years from Obama to Trump. While the industrialized world has been historically responsible for causing the problem over the last 150 years, scientific evidence suggests we cannot avoid the adverse effects of climate change without reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from both developed and rapidly growing developing countries (e.g. India and China). These considerations of national positions vis-à-vis international climate change negotiations will come to the fore in the last section of the course, where students will apply policy and governance knowledge directly through in-class United Nations simulations. Professor Todd Eisenstadt

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. Professor Lydia Fettig

Cohort F - Rhinos

What is the role of nature in human life? How do our attitudes, understanding and assessment of nature shape our environmental impacts on earth? During the past 10,000 years, humans have become the primary driver of changes to the Earth’s surface, ecosystems, biodiversity and chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans. The Anthropocene describes this new geological epoch of humans and the future of our planet is dependent on the choices we humans make, both individually and collectively. This course will explore the interface between humans and the natural world through an examination of cultural, economic, philosophical and scientific values of the environment and the role that humans continue to play in the alteration of the planet. Professor Dhananjaya Katju

The issue of climate change is a dividing topic in America, and the demand for action regarding climate is a hotly debated topic in political, economic, and social discussions. However, the effects of climate change are seen worldwide, and dialogue surrounding this issue must take into account perspectives from the global community. Throughout the course, students analyze the impact of climate change on people of developing and industrialized nations, and evaluate the influence of potential mitigation strategies on the economic, political, and social structure of cultures from around the world. Professor Valentina Aquila

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. Professor Victoria Kiechel

Cohort H - Serpents

In the first decades of the 21st century, fantastical stories have seen an explosion of popularity, attributable to – or perhaps in spite of – the many challenges our world faces. Why are we so drawn to stories of the unreal? This cultural moment is a starting point to investigate the role of the fantastic in our lives: how fantastical fictions reflect and refract lived realities, how humanity’s fantastical storytelling changes over time, how and why writers use fantasy and other forms of speculation to explore political, social, and ethical issues. Through readings, discussions, and assorted projects, we will explore how imagination is a vital tool not only for entertainment, but also for making meaning. Professor Charles Cox


What is the relationship between science fiction and in genomics in reality? How could recent innovations in genetic engineering alter our modern society over the coming few years? Many science fiction novels and movies have used aspects of genetics as plot devices, including cloning, genetic engineering, species hybridization and the production of better human beings by selective breeding (eugenics) often linked to a genetic accident with disastrous consequences or, the feasibility and desirability of a planned genetic alteration, in same case predicting advances in genetics that have become reality. Through reading, screening of movies, in-class discussions and field trips, we will explore the complex relationship between scientific discoveries, science fiction and reality with particular attention to the progresses in biotechnology and the interactions between science, society, politics, and culture, particularly on the issues of the ownership of genetic information, ethical controversies around selection of embryos with desired genetic makeup (designer babies) and how this information changes views of diseases, medical treatments, and our own image as a species. Professor Mauro Tiso

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. Professor Martyn Oliver

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. Professor Caimeen Garrett