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Kyle Johnson
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 are grouped together in cohorts based on thematic similarities. Students will live in a first-year residence hall on the same floor with others within their cohort. Cohort C and Cohort D will be in Anderson Hall. Cohort B, Cohort F, Cohort G, and Cohort H will be in Letts Hall. Cohort A and Cohort E will be in McDowell Hall.

See below for more information about Academic Year 2023-2024 cohorts.

Enroll in UC

The UC/AU Cornerstone Reservation Form is now closed for the 2023-2024 academic year. If you are first-year attending AU in the Fall, please email  to inquire about availability.

More Info

Cohort A

The Examined Life cohort is comprised of four Examined Life sections and functions similarly to other University College cohorts. In The Examined Life, students and faculty discuss classic and contemporary texts with a focus on understanding how to lead an examined life with a syllabus shared across sections, taught by faculty from across the university. The texts are morally complicated works that resist being reduced to a singular moral or political perspective – producing civil and productive conversation between people who disagree with each other. Find the course descriptions below:

Socrates argues that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” What can this possibly mean? In an age of polarization and persistent blindness to the claims and perspectives of the other, it is imperative to revisit Socrates’s connections between wisdom, human flourishing, and reflection. Through complex texts by Plato, Augustine, Mary Shelley, Frederick Douglass, and others, we consider a range of assumptions of what counts as a human and virtuous life, all with a view to self awareness and self criticism of what we value and why.

Professor Thomas Merril
Professor Marianne Noble
Professor Lara Schwartz
Professor Sarah Houser

Cohort B

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

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

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

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

Cohort C

Political and social leaders accuse each other of it, and are accused by a media that itself is then condemned for it. It is tweeted, re-tweeted, articles are written, journals published, and blogs devoted to it – but what is “Corruption”? And how has the mention of it become so pervasive, while there seems to be no set definition or even direction? Has anyone ever asked you for a favor? Have you ever asked for one? How did you thank them for the favor – and when? Before or after they have done what you asked, helped you with an assignment, let you borrow notes, or given you a recommendation for a job? Did you, or they, ask for something in return? Are these simple “favors” or quid pro quos? Were you bartering or bargaining for a service or good? When does a “favor” become “corruption”? There are governments accused of being cleptocracies – governments of organized thieves composed of individuals whose only goal is to legally take as much money and resources from others as possible in order to enrich themselves. This kind of corruption seems easy to define. But what about a payment to a border guard to let you pass? You have the legal right to pass, but a small gift, a token of your appreciation for the job the guard is doing, is expected. And while it might not be legally required, if you don’t tip, then the next time you are going through that crossing it might take a little longer, or your packages receive a little more scrutiny, or maybe the border just isn’t open today – at least not for you. This course will examine values, systems, and institutions across the globe - and down the street. Professor Shawn Bates

How can students be more resilient to and actively fight against disinformation and conspiracy theories at the local and national levels? This seminar explores what motivates people to create and believe disinformation and the political, personal and social impacts of its spread. In discussions and short response papers, students combine history, psychology, and communication theories with engagement with experts in the field to understand and defend against disinformation and conspiracy theories. Professor Kurt Braddock

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

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

Cohort D

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

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

Insecurity is a problem of great scale and complexity that “... stretches across all the levels of analysis from individual to global, and across a spectrum of sectors ranging from cultural and social, through economic and political, to military.”[1] The purpose of this course is to provide students with a deeper appreciation for this complexity by examining both the military and non-military sources, manifestations, and responses to “insecurity” in the Arab/Persian Gulf. The course adopts an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the changes underway and the challenges faced by and emanating from the countries of this region. It examines the ways in which energy resources, ethnic and religious identity, the various forms of governance, as well as interstate rivalries and conflicts and the policies of foreign powers have shaped threat perceptions and security-seeking behaviors.  Professor John Calabrese

[1] Barry Buzan, “Peace, Power, and Security: Contending Concepts in the Study of International Relations,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1984): 110.

Drug use is often characterized as being an individual problem, typically rooted in concepts of free will and choice, character flaws and misdirected (and inappropriate) motivation. This class will provide students with an opportunity to step outside the normal context in which drug use is generally discussed to gain an awareness of the multifaceted nature of the complexity of the drug problem in America that is shaped, driven and impacted by social, cultural, economic, legal, political and biological factors, often outside of the individual’s control. We will pose the question of why we use drugs and discuss how our answers affect the way we think about our own drug use, use by others and the general approaches to drug use and abuse in America. Professor Alexandre Kisner

Cohort E

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

Doing Better at Doing Good partners exclusively with Horton’s Kids (HK), an afterschool program that "empowers children growing up in DC’s most under-resourced communities." This course examines the complex problem of community-based work through 20-hours of direct service with children, ages 5-12, in one of HK’s Community Resource Centers in the Anacostia neighborhood of D.C.. Students explore how HK has evolved since 1989 to reflect the dynamic needs of the community and more inclusive, antiracist practices. Community-based learning requires critical reflection with a focus on reciprocity between students, community, and faculty, combining the current conversation on social justice with on-the-ground action based on community voices. Students volunteer with peers, HK staff, and community volunteers once per week throughout the semester. AU Transportation Programs support students’ travel to Horton’s Kids via the UPass and Lyft RideSmart program. This seminar is an opportunity to work with children, gain experience in DC beyond AU’s campus, and develop relationships with the Horton’s Kids community. Professor Amanda Choutka


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. Professor Jane Palmer

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 G


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

Asteroids, meteors, and comets that orbit near the Earth (collectively referred to as Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs) pose an existential threat to all of humanity. Mitigating the danger posed by NEOs is a complex issue and one that must involve scientists and policy makers from around the world working together. In this  course students will: learn about the nature of NEOs (their orbits, masses, compositions, etc); explore what methods are currently available that can be used to try and stop a NEO from colliding with the Earth, and what new technologies may need to be developed; and take a cross-cultural view of the various public policy approaches to preparing for and dealing with an impact on Earth. The course will culminate with the students working in teams to respond to a hypothetical NEO impact scenario. Professor Aaron Grocholski

Popular culture plays a huge role in shaping the public's perception of science. Have you ever wondered if a metal like vibranium from the Black Panther movie could one day be discovered or synthesized in a lab? Could Mark Watney from The Martian really have survived life on Mars? Can nanobots depicted in Michael Crichton’s novel, “The Prey”, one day take over mankind? Can a “super vaccine” that is able fight all forms, mutations and strains of coronaviruses, be available in the near future? If today’s athletes are getting faster, better and stronger, does this mean that we are also getting better as a human race? Science is multi-faceted, and popular culture's representation of it can lead to complex problems and issues that will need equally diverse discussions and solutions. This course aims to investigate and resolve such questions by discussing scientific theories, examining current advances in research and exploring present challenges and dilemmas. Students will look at fictional and non-fictional representations of science and technology in various media (film, comic books, television, digital media, etc), and evaluate not only how scientific ideas are utilized, explored and critiqued, but also how their portrayal impact society and our lives. Professor Michele Lansigan

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 F

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

How do we learn about sex? It’s a complicated question with unique answers based on our families, friends, schools, and identities. It’s also a question that continually plagues students, parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers. And despite these enduring disputes, U.S. institutions still have no consistent answers even for whether we ought to include sexual education in our curricula, much less what such courses should entail. This class will explore these conversations by examining perspectives on sex education from media, history, scholars, and a variety of professionals currently working in the field. Ultimately, we’ll be interested in when, how, and what we learn about sex from both state-sanctioned and “unapproved” sources. Professor Marnie Twigg

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. Professor Iris Krasnow

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 explores 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. The course first considers the history of these atrocities and the context in which they occurred and then looks 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? Students 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, the course looks at the complex issue of responsibility and how to apportion responsibility. Can only individuals be held responsible for atrocity crimes and if so, the leaders only or also the followers? 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 requires students to reflect on the foundations of their own moral views and class discussions animate deeply held assumptions about human nature and human responsibility. Professor Daniel Schneider

Cohort H

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

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

This course will explore one enduring question: Why and how has hip-hop become equally a tool for revolution and capitalist expansion across the world? As hip-hop has attained the interest of corporate America, it has gone from being vilified by many in the mainstream to a source of expansion for American ideals. As hip-hop began to emerge in other countries, it also began to develop its own country-specific narrative. Across the globe, the effects of hip-hop can be felt from politics and education to pop culture and religion from the Arab Spring to the whitewashing of history books in Japan. This course explores how hip-hop has become a source of revolution and capitalist expansion for some of the world’s most marginalized (and not-so-marginalized) populations. Professor Omekongo Dibinga

Establishing one's identitie(s) is both real and invented. How one reads other's projected identitie(s) in a multi-platform culture is complicated, not only by how people adorn themselves, but by our media choices. From avatars on social media (Instagram, YouTube, Tinder) to online simulation platforms (Open Simulator and SecondLife), and from fan conventions (Otakon, Comic Con) to festivals (Afropunk), notions of the constructed self destabilizes conventional models of the singular identity. Using an interdisciplinary and inter-media approach, this course introduces the ways people shape their identities across a variety of cultural perspectives. Readings and class discussions are central to the experience of this course. Professor Tim Doud