Professor of Biology

I studied science in college, but I loved taking history and English courses also. As a biology professor, I enjoy talking to my colleagues outside of the sciences to compare notes about approaches they use in their classrooms to engage students. Different fields of study offer unique approaches to understanding our world, and this provides me with new ways to approach questions and to share my enthusiasm for these questions with my students.

In my Engagements class, yes, we will consider some really cool questions from biology. Even more importantly, however, you will learn approaches that will help you to evaluate empirical evidence, to interpret data and show you how to articulate problems in an empirical framework. My hope is that you will be able to use these empirical approaches in your future classes, no matter what field you decide to major in.

As a biologist, I am interested in understanding the wonders of our natural world. My primary research questions focus on aging – do all animals and plants grow old and show signs of aging, like humans, or can some species escape aging? (There are some that do escape!) I use the tools of evolutionary biology and ecology to address these questions, and I teach courses on evolution, ecology, and aging in the Department of Biology. 

  • EGMT 1510: The Aesthetics of Trauma

    Headshot: 

    Hanadi Al-Samman

    EGMT 1510: The Aesthetics of Trauma

    What is the difference between the beautiful and the grotesque? What is the gravitational pull of the iconic Vietnamese “Napalm Girl” 1972 picture and the drowned Syrian refugee boy’s picture on the shores of Turkey in 2015? How does art allow us to grapple with trauma? What jarring or therapeutic effects can one extract from traumatic recollection and expression? How Can individual and collective trauma intertwine to create a narrative witnessing, and an everlasting artistic and national remembrance?

    This course will explore the artistic and ethical engagements of traumatic recall and expression. It will address the moral capacities of art at times of national and cultural crisis. We will cover the various ways in which certain groups have grabbled with catastrophic events such as: slavery, genocide, holocaust, Nakba, Maffa, and the unfortunate aftermath of the Arab Spring. In particular, we will evaluate the effectiveness of art installations, interactive drama, digital music, films, and literature in covering the tragic outcome of the Syrian revolution, its toll in terms of lost lives and refugee world crises. We will explore art’s potential to provide healing and activism despite utter loss.

  • EGMT 1510: Telling the Truth

    Headshot: 

    Roberto Armengol

    EGMT 1510: Telling the Truth

    There is no such thing as “Just the facts, Ma’am.” When journalists tell stories, when filmmakers craft documentaries, even when scientists write up lab reports and judges pronounce their decisions — there’s an aesthetic dimension to their work. Telling the truth is intrinsically wrapped up in the art of the telling, just as great fiction, conversely, conveys some deeper truth about life. Documenting facts in any genre or style carries with it a sense of drama: the composer structures a narrative, selects what to say, gives the facts coherence, builds them up around an argument (sometimes implicit), and attempts to touch her audience in some way. At the same time, claiming to tell the truth bestows added authority on the drama and extra responsibility on its author. Whether the story is told in images, words, music, voice or film, the facts must always be reconciled with the art, and the art with the facts. Why is this so?And does this mean that telling the truth is hopelessly relative, subjective, manipulative? In this course, we’ll look at the interplay of truth and beauty in works of nonfiction —documentary storytelling. We’ll debate the norms and conventions of different forms of such work. And we’ll discuss the complicated role that the “art of facts” plays in helping people grasp reality. Your assignments will involve making your own miniature documentary in one or another genre, and engaging with one another’s work in the spirit of collaborative creativity. Our “storytelling cooperative” places you in artistic fellowships where you’ll experiment with a particular medium. You and your fellow artists will workshop narratives of your own, produce a draft story, and then reflect on your composition. This effort invites you to think about how a sense of narrative honesty and a knack for storytelling together can enrich your life experiences.

  • EGMT 1520: Doing Fieldwork

    Headshot: 

    Roberto Armengol

    EGMT 1520: Doing Fieldwork

    How can scientists study the messiness of real life? What sort of knowledge can we gain outside the traditional laboratory? And how do we analyze data gathered “in the field”? This course invites you to consider these questions while introducing you to the many faces of fieldwork. We’ll look at the principles behind the practice, as well as the array of methods that put those principles to work in any given field setting.

     

    Although field methods vary across the social and natural sciences, they have some basic things in common: Much (often most) of the evidence fieldworkers collect is qualitative. The field experience is not, strictly speaking, reproducible. And the boundaries of “the field” are always fuzzy. Yet despite these complications, fieldwork remains a vibrant and indispensable way of coming to know and make sense of the world. And while sometimes it might seem as messy as real life itself, it involves thick, systematic observation of a living, breathing community, generally by participating in that community in purposeful ways. Inherently, this calls on researchers to think carefully, holistically and empathetically about their own relationship to the field and about its inhabitants, whether human or nonhuman. The work you do in this course will be deeply collaborative, and will familiarize you with fieldwork not just by reading about it, but by doing some fieldwork of your own.

  • EGMT 1510: Art: Inside/Out

    Headshot: 

    Sarah Betzer

    EGMT 1510: Art: Inside/Out

    In this course, you will explore our world through the lens of artistic creation and aesthetic encounter in its many forms: from the arts of painting and sculpture to literature, music, and theater, to experiences of the natural world. Through a series of encounters with specific objects, interpretive and critical readings, interactions with practicing artists, and your own hands-on creative exercises, you will become familiar with some of the many ways that art and aesthetics shape human experience and culture. By the end of the semester you will have learned:

    • some of the principles of description and analysis of aesthetic experience and objects;
    • how historical, geographical, and cultural differences have shaped ideas and experiences of arts;
    • what creativity looks like “from the inside”: that is, from the perspective of practicing artists an in your own creative enterprises;
    • how art has been understood to affect and even transform us as individuals and cultures.

    With the UVA Grounds and the Charlottesville community as our laboratory, our work in this course will embrace visits to studios and from practicing artists, and will extend to museums, film, and musical and theatrical performance. In every case we will bring to bear our readings and discussion of arts criticism, philosophy, and commentary--including your own. We will think together about the power of art as well as notions of art’s ‘aura’; about the range of cultural frameworks for art and aesthetic encounter (institutions, experience, critique); about the “time” of art and its changing nature over historical periods; and about aesthetic wonder and artistic creativity as dispositions you can harness and take forward into other realms of your lives.

  • EGMT 1530: The Individual and Society

    Headshot: 

    Tico Braun

    EGMT 1530: The Individual and Society

    In this course we ask big questions, perhaps among the biggest.  Who am I?  How do I come to be who I am?  How do I know myself?  Can I know myself?  What makes me who I am?  Am I responsible for my own life?  What are my relationships to others?  What are my relationships to my society (societies)?  What are my rights?  What are my obligations?  Does who I am in private say more about me than what I do in public? Can I live a moral life surrounded by immorality?   Should there be a safety net in a society of individuals? If we are indeed individuals, or can be, how do we forge our lives, in our interests and in those of others, toward the public good?

    This course considers these big questions in order to help us better understand the richness and complexity of individuals and communities. We will reflect on the historical impacts of society on individuals and consider how individuals begin to form societies – or even more important, communities. In particular, we will consider how we as individuals encounter one another in our differences  and what it might mean to pursue a common good.

  • EGMT 1530: Real or Fake? The Politics of Authenticity

    Headshot: 

    Sylvia Chong

    EGMT 1530: Real or Fake? The Politics of Authenticity

    Why do we say that “real men don’t cry” or that “real women have curves”? Who gets to cook pho and tacos, and who gets to eat them? What does it mean to be called, or even to call yourself, black or white or Asian or Latinx or Native American? Does shopping at Wal-Mart make you working class, or wearing Prada make you upper class? Can one change one’s racial, gender, or class identity, or are such identities given by birth? And can sexuality, religion, or disability be identities, since many people may change their sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or disability status over time? Who gets to police these identities? And what is at stake in these battles—what do we win (or lose) in deciding who is “real” and who is “fake”? This course will explore these questions by investigating various controversies involving authenticity and identity politics. We will draw our examples from law, politics, music, food, cinema, sports, literature, and other realms of U.S. culture and society from the 19th to the 21st centuries.

  • EGMT 1510/1530: New Media Art in the Age of Global Networks

    Headshot: 

    Ted Coffey

    EGMT 1510/1530: New Media Art in the Age of Global Networks

    If art has always had a role to play in mediating relationships between human beings, what artistic and social possibilities are emerging with the new media in the mix — from internet art and interactive sound art, to fully immersive virtual realities and AI’s that dream? Do computer technologies and global networks promote the democratization of artistic production, distribution, and reception? Or do they reinforce or even amplify imbalances of power and of access to resources that already exist? Do present-day configurations of art, technology, and media culture allow us to gain empathy for and insight into the experiences of different people and communities? Or do they obscure differences by requiring us to conform to the logics of our tools and techniques? Do computers expand creative possibilities and transform what's possible in art? Or do they, instead, undermine the artist's imagination, originality, and artistry? After all, how do computers change art-making?

    In this course, we will explore these questions and others through encounters with a variety of new media artworks and practices, made by people working in a variety of different cultures and social situations. We will use new media as a way to respond to course content — and to make new, propositional works.

  • EGMT 1520: Making Truth Claims - The Power & Limits of Empirical Reasoning

    Headshot: 

    Sarah Corse

    EGMT 1520: Making Truth Claims - The Power & Limits of Empirical Reasoning

    What makes a truth claim powerful and persuasive? In our everyday lives, most of us rely on at least some version of empirical reasoning to advance our own truth claims and assess others. For example, a person might say “Everyone is either male or female” because that person has never met anyone who isn’t and so s/he imagines the world is fully represented by male and female people. However, someone with different experience may assess this claim as ridiculous and obviously untrue. This is an example of rudimentary empirical reasoning – we have an idea of how things work in our heads and we check it against the “real world.” This is a central tenet of the scientific method – we test our theories against empirical data to see if they are supported. But we all know examples of “bad” science, or disputed “facts,” or questions that empirical data don’t seem to help answer. In this course, we will think about the process and evaluation of empirical observations and scientific reasoning. Through activities and discussion students will grapple with question such as:  What are the strengths of these knowledge systems and what might undermine them or make them less relevant? How do we turn the “real world” into data and what problems does that cause? What are the similarities and differences in empirical reasoning about the natural world and the social world?

  • EGMT 1520: If Genetics is the Solution, What's the Problem?

    Headshot: 

    Claire Cronmiller

    EGMT 1520: If Genetics is the Solution, What's the Problem?

    How can we cure sickle cell disease?  Why don’t snakes have legs?  How do we make a seedless (insert your favorite fruit or vegetable here)?  How do we bypass egg allergies by genetically modifying chickens?  What contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire?  Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings’s children?  Is violent behavior a genetic disease?  Can we cure (insert disease of interest here) through gene therapy?

    These are all analytical questions/problems that have been addressed through genetic/DNA analysis.  We’ll use examples like these to explore how our increasingly sophisticated understanding of genomes and the genetic basis of life can be used to approach a wide variety of puzzles or problems.  In each case, we’ll examine how investigators framed a specific scientific question, what analytical approach was designed to address that question, what results were produced by the analyses, and what conclusions could be drawn from those results.  Wherever possible, we’ll consider any related ethical dilemmas that continue to arise, as our rapidly expanding genetic knowledge impacts both individuals and society.  And, best of all:  You’ll learn some genetics along the way!

  • EGMT 1530: What is Inequality and Why Should We Worry About It?

    Headshot: 

    Robert Fatton

    EGMT 1530: What is Inequality and Why Should We Worry About It?

    This Engagement course is designed to explore how economic inequalities shape human differences and social conflicts nationally and globally, and whether they are compatible with the common good and democratic rule. According to Oxfam “almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population” and the wealth of that one percent totals approximately $110 trillion, which in turn amounts to “65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.”  Are these disparities so extreme, and the lives of the haves versus the have-nots so fundamentally different, that it becomes a stretch to speak of a common humanity?  Do income and wealth inequalities exacerbate other types of inequalities based on gender and race, and how do they affect human health and dignity?  Are they an invitation to new forms of authoritarianism and a world of violent conflicts?  Or, are current levels of inequality the just and legitimate rewards for entrepreneurial, innovating, and risk-taking behavior? In short, are economic disparities the logical and inevitable consequence of the contradictory processes of wealth creation and poverty reduction, and are they justifiable and ultimately sustainable?

    Students will explore these questions by investigating various controversies involving the nature, and potential costs or benefits of inequalities. We will draw our examples from the experiences of both the advanced industrialized nations and the “global south.”  We will also examine what analytical approaches scholars have used to study the social, economic, and political consequences of inequalities. 

  • EGMT 1520: Thrifting: A Case Study for Empirical Inquiry

    Headshot: 

    Gertrude Fraser

    EGMT 1520: Thrifting: A Case Study for Empirical Inquiry

    At semester’s end at any American University peruse the dumpsters, dorm hallways and suite common rooms and you are sure to see mounds of castaway objects, once deemed of highest importance to the life and welfare of it’s owners. Eventually some of these objects, especially clothing, will find their way into a thrift-store, or on-line via second-hand sales or will be remade into new fashionable objects. Who buys and sells second-hand clothes and why? Thrifting may seem a trivial issue but even when they disagree as to its specific functions and meanings, scholars across a range of disciplines agree that it is of  increasing economic, political, cultural and personal importance in contemporary communities in the U.S. and globally. We will use the case study as an empirically grounded approach to investigate the real-world contexts of thrifting. The case study can be a powerful in-depth approach using multiple forms of empirical evidence to research complex issues, objects or activities when the phenomena is not well described and where there are multiple interpretations and points of view. Students will learn about the strengths and limitations of different types of empirical case study designs. They will then design a case study research project, explore related scholarly and popular literature, collect empirical evidence, and interpret their findings about some specific aspect of thrifting. The course will involve the students and professor in exploring how a case study method applied to a specific social practice can be a rich source for empirical inquiry into our social world, how we experience it, how it shapes our cultural identities and how it is structured across local and global sites. 

  • EGMT 1510: Extinction in Art and Literature

    EGMT 1510: Extinction in Art and Literature

    Scientists recently designated the contemporary era as the sixth age of mass extinction, and the first in which humanity has played the primary role. This course explores how man-made, or anthropogenic, extinction is being conceptualized and represented in literature, visual art and other cultural artifacts. We’ll explore how writers and artists think about and with the idea of our age of extinction as an urgent conceptual, representational and ethical problem, and the modes and media they use. Aesthetic approaches to this environmental crisis implicitly or explicitly force us to address the question of the ethical possibilities of the arts and encourage us to rethink what ethical engagement might look like across longer timescales and global networks of action.

                We’ll address one of the most pressing global issues of our time through the close analysis of literary texts, visual art, data visualizations, audio recordings, photojournalism and film that try to give a shape to a process that is not always visible, immediately experienced, or easily apprehended. We will ask how extinction has been imagined, through what forms and aesthetic expressions, and to what uses it has been put. What kinds of historical narratives and innovative visualizations emerge from efforts to imagine extinction? What aesthetic strategies do writers and artists use to conceptualize the idea of extinction within and alongside other historical, cultural and scientific processes – imperial expansion and colonization, conflict, fantasies of lost worlds, “deep” time, re-wilding, and so-called “de-extinction,” the resurrection of species?

  • EGMT 1540: Does Reading Literature Make Us More Ethical? Really?

    EGMT 1540: Does Reading Literature Make Us More Ethical? Really?

    From antiquity onwards it has often been claimed that literature can have an ethical effect upon the reader; in short, that literary works can change us for the better, but also, perhaps, for the worse. In this class we’ll explore those claims in depth, examining a diverse set of ethical commitments both within literary works and in arguments about them from the ancient world to the present. We will ask what kinds of ethical commitments those might be: truths or useful lies, imaginative leaps, models for life?

    Does reading literature increase empathy for others? Make us inhabit modes of life different from our own? Conversely, can it corrupt us or produce problematic desires? If so, does that lead to different action in the world? What is the distinction between ‘real experience’ and knowledge gained from the page? We will consider arguments about how literary works afford explorations of ethics in ways that non-literary modes cannot, and how thinkers have characterized the relation between ethics and literature in differing historical and cultural contexts, from Plato and Aristotle through to contemporary arguments about animal rights, violence, and reading literature as a public good. We’ll also look at historical instances where literature has been seen as having a direct effect upon social change and attitudes in, for example, the abolition of slavery, and we’ll explore contemporary case studies, such as the extension of certain rights and obligations to animals, asking, for example, whether a story or poem can turn you into a vegetarian. Finally, we will ask whether certain types of imaginative writing alone possess the potential to generate ethical change. Does reading literature, in the media-rich world of today, still retain distinct or unique ethical power?

  • EGMT 1510/1530: Making the Invisible Visible

    Headshot: 

    Lisa Woolfork

    EGMT 1510/1530: Making the Invisible Visible

    What do cultural artifacts—monuments, songs, books, films, TV shows, paintings, folk art, and so on—reveal about our cultures? And what are their limitations? In considering these questions, we will ask whether and to what extent engaging aesthetics and difference are complementary endeavors. Addressing these questions will require us to consider aesthetics and human difference from a number of angles. We will ask how the positions we take when reading—both physical and ideological—influence our interpretations, and the kinds of arguments monuments make to us based upon their positioning and how they ask us to approach them. Along these lines, we will also explore the concept and practice of audience and what it means to approach aesthetics in the public realm. How is reading or viewing shaped by those around us? What’s the difference between an audience in a movie theater, stage production, museum, or class? Why do different venues require different forms of spectatorship? Similarly, imagine the same cultural artifact, such as a song, in varied contexts or performed by different kinds of people. These and other concerns will animate the course as we study the way that cultural artifacts produced in particular historical moments are subject to current and future interpretation.

  • EMGT 1540: What is Engaged Citizenship

    Headshot: 

    Laura Goldblatt

    EMGT 1540: What is Engaged Citizenship

    If citizenship gives us rights, can it also make demands of us? What would it mean to acquiesce to these demands, if so, and what to refuse them? Such questions about the ethics and requirements of engaged citizenship were central to the founding of the University of Virginia and increasingly serve as a rallying cry for the importance of the liberal arts tradition. But what is engaged citizenship and what does it require of us? In this class, we will consider varying frameworks for the ethics of engaged citizenship—education, self-reflection, presence (or showing up)—to struggle with the relationship of the self to society within the University community and beyond. Why do we increasingly know more about certain aspects of our food supply and so little about others? What are the implications of this visibility and invisibility for our behavior towards each other? Does citizenship require us to confront those who we perceive as challenging our values, and, if so, can that ever be anything other than a coercive and oppressive act? Is citizenship a communal agreement or an individual one? Does it bind us together or separate us? When is violence justified, if ever? Under what circumstances should we bend or discard our citizenly duty? Through class excursions, readings, journaling activities, viewings, and course presentations we will experiment with the ethical implications of the various positions we take—including inaction—when we respond to the world around and inside of us.

  • EGMT 1510: Black and White - Race and Photography in America

    Headshot: 

    Grace Hale

    EGMT 1510: Black and White - Race and Photography in America

    What does it mean to see the world in black and white? How has photography as a medium shaped how we understand race? How have ideas about race shaped aesthetic practices in photography?  This course explores the overlapping histories of photography and race in the nineteenth and twentieth century US.

    Technologies for seeing and making sense of the world, race in a post-emancipation society and photography as a medium evolved together in the US.  As the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of his era, argued in the 1860s, the new “picture-making faculty” was “a mighty power,” an effective tool for defining the identities of both enslaved and emancipated Americans.  Race and photography depended on vision and on an appeal to aesthetics for this authority.  Both also claimed to present rather than represent—to reveal the material world in ways unmediated by human agency. 

    In the contemporary moment, we no longer understand photography as a transparent documentation of the real world.  We no longer argue that race is an identity that people can see.  Yet photography continues through its aesthetic and documentary power to shape the meaning of race.  In this course, we will examine images by photographers including James Van Der Zee, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, Danny Lyon, Emmet Gowin, Dawoud Bey, Carrie Mae Weems, and Sally Mann.  We will visit the Fralin Museum of Art, UVA’s Small Special Collections Library, and possibly the National Gallery in DC.

  • EGMT 1510: Art: Inside/Out

    Headshot: 

    Sarah Betzer

    EGMT 1510: Art: Inside/Out

    In this course, you will explore our world through the lens of artistic creation and aesthetic encounter in its many forms: from the arts of painting and sculpture to literature, music, and theater, to experiences of the natural world. Through a series of encounters with specific objects, interpretive and critical readings, interactions with practicing artists, and your own hands-on creative exercises, you will become familiar with some of the many ways that art and aesthetics shape human experience and culture. By the end of the semester you will have learned:

    • some of the principles of description and analysis of aesthetic experience and objects;
    • how historical, geographical, and cultural differences have shaped ideas and experiences of arts;
    • what creativity looks like “from the inside”: that is, from the perspective of practicing artists an in your own creative enterprises;
    • how art has been understood to affect and even transform us as individuals and cultures.

    With the UVA Grounds and the Charlottesville community as our laboratory, our work in this course will embrace visits to studios and from practicing artists, and will extend to museums, film, and musical and theatrical performance. In every case we will bring to bear our readings and discussion of arts criticism, philosophy, and commentary--including your own. We will think together about the power of art as well as notions of art’s ‘aura’; about the range of cultural frameworks for art and aesthetic encounter (institutions, experience, critique); about the “time” of art and its changing nature over historical periods; and about aesthetic wonder and artistic creativity as dispositions you can harness and take forward into other realms of your lives.

  • EGMT 1510: Beauty and Math in the Cosmos

    Headshot: 

    Kelsey Johnson

    EGMT 1510: Beauty and Math in the Cosmos

    Patterns, symmetry, and harmonics are mathematical principles that are found throughout the natural world, from leaves on trees, to galaxies in the universe.   In this course students will explore the deep intertwining of fundamental math and geometries found in nature.  Students will investigate how their sense of aesthetics is influenced by these mathematical principles, and learn to identify mathematical components in their own aesthetic judgment.   We will examine how one’s environment might impact their perception of beauty in the natural world.  Student will also consider the extent to which these mathematical principles have been represented in art from different cultures, ranging from Islamic architecture to Surrealism, thereby questioning whether math is a “universal” language. Throughout the course, students will create a portfolio of their own art based on mathematical principles, culminating in a class art show.  

  • EGMT 1510/1530: New Media Art in the Age of Global Networks

    Headshot: 

    Ted Coffey

    EGMT 1510/1530: New Media Art in the Age of Global Networks

    If art has always had a role to play in mediating relationships between human beings, what artistic and social possibilities are emerging with the new media in the mix — from internet art and interactive sound art, to fully immersive virtual realities and AI’s that dream? Do computer technologies and global networks promote the democratization of artistic production, distribution, and reception? Or do they reinforce or even amplify imbalances of power and of access to resources that already exist? Do present-day configurations of art, technology, and media culture allow us to gain empathy for and insight into the experiences of different people and communities? Or do they obscure differences by requiring us to conform to the logics of our tools and techniques? Do computers expand creative possibilities and transform what's possible in art? Or do they, instead, undermine the artist's imagination, originality, and artistry? After all, how do computers change art-making?

    In this course, we will explore these questions and others through encounters with a variety of new media artworks and practices, made by people working in a variety of different cultures and social situations. We will use new media as a way to respond to course content — and to make new, propositional works.

  • EGMT 1520: Thinking Like a Scientist

    Headshot: 

    Jamie Morris

    EGMT 1520: Thinking Like a Scientist

    This course is concerned with how we acquire and use knowledge about the world to organize our thoughts and beliefs about complexities in nature. We will consider the many routes of knowledge acquisition and formulate a specific framework by which we may test the veracity of acquired knowledge. The course will consider foundational ideas in the history and philosophy of science, but aim to move beyond the philosophical to provide concrete examples of empiricism in our natural and social worlds. Students will share the challenge of discovering how strong beliefs are not always empirically justified and how our own morals, values and prior experiences may blind us to available evidence. Beyond recognition of the principles of science and articulation of the limitations of empirical approaches, we will develop strategies for evaluation and testing of important claims.

  • EGMT 1520: Poverty Counts - Understanding Measurement and Meaning through Poverty

    EGMT 1520: Poverty Counts - Understanding Measurement and Meaning through Poverty

    The United States' definition of "poverty" dates to 1963, when Social Security administration economist Mollie Orshansky used the Department of Agriculture's "Thrifty Food Plan" to calculate the amount of economic deprivation in the U.S. But Orshansky never intended for her calculation to become the official poverty line, and it's been challenged by critics on the left and the right ever since. Orshansky's calculation has persisted, however, because (re)defining poverty is both complex and controversial. Like categories such as "race" and "disability," poverty is a socially constructed concept. When we say someone is "poor," what do we mean? Do we mean that his or her income falls below an absolute threshold (a dollar amount) or a relative one (such as a percentage of the median income)? Moreover, what do we mean by "income"? Should we even define poverty in material terms? In answering these questions and related ones, this course will ask you to consider the theoretical and empirical issues involved in operationalizing socially constructed concepts such as poverty. Through critical engagement with the interdisciplinary poverty literature, both qualitative and quantitative, and hands-on research, you will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of carrying out empirical social science.

  • EGMT 1530: America Unequal: Inequalities and the American Promise, From the Founders to the Present

    EGMT 1530: America Unequal: Inequalities and the American Promise, From the Founders to the Present

    The United States Declaration of Independence proclaimed “all men are created equal.” However, from the country’s earliest days, some Americans found that this promise of equality did not apply to them, either in theory or in practice. This course explores the various inequalities – economic, racial, gender, and sexual, among others – that have defined the American experience. The existence of these inequalities, both legal and informal, has both undermined the American promise of equality and opportunity for some and enabled prosperity and the “American Dream” for others. This course will examine this paradox from an interdisciplinary, historical perspective with an eye towards understanding the state of American inequality today. As participants in “America Unequal,” you will critically examine your individual American experience in relation to both the different experiences of others and the historical and social forces that shape all our experiences, albeit in different ways. In doing so, you will consider the meaning(s) of “equality,” as well as related ideas such as “fairness” and “opportunity,” and consider the ways in which our ideas about equality have aligned and conflicted with the reality of the American experience for various categories of people. Additionally, you will consider how the categories that shape our experiences are themselves socially constructed and historically contingent. “America Unequal” challenges you to consider the implications of inequality in both the public and private spheres, including the workplace, the home, the courtroom, and the voting booth. In doing so, you will examine how our individual actions and public polices have both enabled and constrained the ideal of equality as expressed in the Declaration, as well as how both culture and policy have changed over time and by what means. Finally, you will be asked to examine remaining barriers to equality for all and how they might be removed in service of creating, in words of the Constitution’s preamble, “a more perfect union.”

  • EGMT 1540: Mortality & Morality - The Ethics of Death

    EGMT 1540: Mortality & Morality - The Ethics of Death

    This course introduces students to modes of ethical inquiry and reflection through an investigation of an issue of universal human concern: death and dying. In the words of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, “There's nothing certain in a man's life except this: That he must lose it.” Beyond death’s inevitability, its sheer facticity, however, is there anything else to be said about it? Much, indeed. In this course, students will learn to see death and dying as an important lens for understanding morality and ethics, in terms of both individual dilemmas and choices, and social practices and institutions. For as Peter Berger has noted, “Every society is, in the last resort, [human beings] banded together in the face of death.” 

    Over our seven weeks together, students will interrogate, articulate, and critically analyze their fundamental assumptions about the nature of death and human postures toward it. They will investigate individual and social practices of death and mourning. They will consider their beliefs about a “good death” and what it might mean to “die well” in conversation with voices from different eras and perspectives. We will explore specific questions such as: is death really all that bad? (Epicurus didn’t think so). Would personal immortality be preferable? (As it turns out, various religious traditions, philosophers and “transhumanists” disagree). What difference does the knowledge of death have for the living—for how we approach life, build culture, and organize community and institutions? How has the experience of dying changed in the modern age, and how does this affect our understanding of the goals of medicine and the ethics of killing and letting-die? And, how does all of this relate to our everyday lives? How might we deal with loss (if, and when, the time comes)? What will we teach our kids about death (if, and when, the time comes)? Our answers to these questions, students will come to see, reflect deep-seated and often inarticulate beliefs about human nature, moral agency, and the good life.

  • EGMT 1530: Debating Islams

    Headshot: 

    Ahmed al- Rahim

    EGMT 1530: Debating Islams

    This Engagement is designed to enhance the understanding of religious diversity and conflict within our global world order. We will examine through the lens of religious difference questions of theology and political ideology, nationalism, and culture and law in Islam and the Muslim world. We will assess together how these categories are constructed in shaping and defining global as well as local religious identity today. The course also will encourage students to develop an awareness and understanding of religious difference and conflict through a series of case studies examining the relationship between Islam and political ideology, the nature of religious difference and violence, and the question of the “clash of civilizations.” Lastly, in terms of this Engagement’s “shared experience,” this course includes the following: A visiting lecture from a policy maker working on the intersection of religion and politics at the U.S. Department of State, particularly with respect to the “Islamic world” and the nature of American foreign policy and public diplomacy; and an on-site visit to the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Library to examine its holdings of religious texts, including manuscripts of polyglot Bibles, Korans, and Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible.”

  • EGMT 1520: How Has Evolution Shaped Who We Are?

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    Debbie Roach

    EGMT 1520: How Has Evolution Shaped Who We Are?

    All humans are 99.5% genetically similar to any other human yet there is tremendous variation among us.  Why is there variation in skin color?  Why do most of us suffer from altitude sickness but there are people in the Andes and the Himalayas who live at extreme elevations?  How does malaria explain why, for over 30 years, all the finalists in the men’s Olympic 100-meters had a recent ancestry in Sub-Saharan West Africa?  To understand variation we need to understand how evolution has shaped us and how the environment has influenced our evolution.

    We will use empirical approaches to understand patterns of variation in appearance, in physiology, and in (athletic) performance among individuals across the world.  The questions that we will address are important, not only to understand diversity among individuals, but also because the foundational approaches that you will develop in this class will provide you with skills to understand how science is done.  You will learn to think like a scientist and to interpret data.  In the future when you read in the New York Times about the latest discoveries, you will be able put these discoveries into context and make your own evaluation about the validity of new findings

  • EGMT 1540: Can a Text Be Ethical?

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    Janet Spittler

    EGMT 1540: Can a Text Be Ethical?

    The reliance on texts for ethical guidance is a widespread human phenomenon.  From the Code of Hammurabi to UVa’s Honor Code, texts have been used both to dictate what is right and wrong and to inspire individuals to seek out and enact the good. In this course, we will examine the use of written documents in determining what is ethical through case studies involving just one example: the New Testament.  We will examine four specific moments in history in which the New Testament played a primary role in ethical decision-making, asking in each instance the following questions:

     

    • Did the multiple individuals involved agree about the text’s interpretation? If not, how did the disagreement play out? Did a particular interpretation “win”? Was that, in your opinion, the “correct” interpretation?
    • Why did the text play a role? Did the text have the same authoritative and/or ethical status to everyone involved?
    • Was the outcome actually ethical?  Did the text lead, in your opinion, to ethical actions?

    Our investigations of these historical moments will inform reflection on ourselves as ethical agents. To what extent have texts guided our actions in the past? Are there texts that we find ethically authoritative and/or helpful? As we inevitably face moments where we must make ethical decisions, what role, if any, will such texts play? What lessons can we learn from the roles texts have played in the past?

  • EGMT 1540: What Isn't For Sale? And What Shouldn't Be?

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    Rebecca Stangl

    EGMT 1540: What Isn't For Sale? And What Shouldn't Be?

    There are many things in life we value, and which it seems unproblematic to buy or sell: houses, sweaters, and ice cream, for example.  But there are other things we value, which it seems impossible to buy or sell: love, moral goodness, or happiness, for example.  And there are still others which we can buy or sell, but might think we should not: kidneys, sexual or reproductive labor, ideas, or spiritual goods, for example.

    Students in this engagement will consider whether there is anything that it is either impossible or wrong to sell.  We will focus on examples from a wide variety of domains and draw on readings from philosophy, religious studies, and fiction.  Our aim throughout will be to understand more clearly the value of the particular goods in question and the role such goods might play in making our own lives good and meaningful.

  • EGMT 1520/1540: Knowledge You Can Trust

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    Chad Wellmon

    EGMT 1520/1540: Knowledge You Can Trust

    According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are losing trust in their institutions. On average, only 32% of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite alot” of confidence in key institutions. In the months following last year’s presidential election, this erosion of trust became a subject of national debate as stories about “fake news” dominated the headlines––could any newsource be trusted to provide truthful and trustworthy information? Could we, a public in search of the facts and truth, find real knowledge anywhere?

    In this course, we will consider what it means to trust not only a person––a parent, a friend, a teacher––but also an institution, a community, or a profession. We will focus, in particular, on the ways in which a range of modern institutions––such as the state, media and journalism, scientific communities, religious institutions, and universities––create and share trustworthy knowledge. We will also consider the ethical and political consequences when the institutions that we have long relied on to provide us trustworthy knowledge face unprecedented challenges.

    Over the course of fourteen weeks, we will consider these big but basic questions through an empirical and ethical investigation of the organization of knowledge: its sources of authority, legitimacy and credibility. We will consider the ways in which empirical forms of knowledge, especially knowledge based on statistical methods and practices, are central to the modern state, media and science. How do states gain knowledge about themselves? How does modern science rely on empirical methods to make its claims?  We will also consider what it means to be an ethical agent in light of the apparent breakdown in trust. What does it mean to be a member of a community, both locally and more globally, and how do you decide whom and what to trust? How do modern institutions relate to particular ethical traditions and how do individuals understand their own lives and unique traditions through these institutions? Our goal is to understand better the empirical basis of modern knowledge and its institutions as well as to reflect upon the kinds of ethical people these institutions help form. 

  • EGMT 1510/1530: Making the Invisible Visible

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    Lisa Woolfork

    EGMT 1510/1530: Making the Invisible Visible

    What do cultural artifacts—monuments, songs, books, films, TV shows, paintings, folk art, and so on—reveal about our cultures? And what are their limitations? In considering these questions, we will ask whether and to what extent engaging aesthetics and difference are complementary endeavors. Addressing these questions will require us to consider aesthetics and human difference from a number of angles. We will ask how the positions we take when reading—both physical and ideological—influence our interpretations, and the kinds of arguments monuments make to us based upon their positioning and how they ask us to approach them. Along these lines, we will also explore the concept and practice of audience and what it means to approach aesthetics in the public realm. How is reading or viewing shaped by those around us? What’s the difference between an audience in a movie theater, stage production, museum, or class? Why do different venues require different forms of spectatorship? Similarly, imagine the same cultural artifact, such as a song, in varied contexts or performed by different kinds of people. These and other concerns will animate the course as we study the way that cultural artifacts produced in particular historical moments are subject to current and future interpretation.

  • EGMT 1530: Race, Racism, Colony, and Nation

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    Lisa Woolfork

    EGMT 1530: Race, Racism, Colony, and Nation

    What do the American Revolution and Black Lives Matter have in common? What happened between the 1776 declaration that “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” and the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that the black man had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect?” In what ways can the 1950s era civil rights slogan, “I Am A Man,” be considered a declaration? What’s required to connect Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson or Baltimore to colonial resistance to the king sending “swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance?”[1]

     

    As a component of a series of scholarly engagements, this course is committed to cultivating an approach to human differences that can serve as a basis for critical inquiry and civic participation. This course is concerned with the ways in which racial differences shape American history, life, and culture.  In particular, we will frame our questions using the metaphor of the colony and the nation. The prevailing story of America is one of transformation from a colony into one nation, as its people transformed from subjects to citizens. Yet, the transformative properties of American democracy were racially precise: white freedom co-existing with/based upon black subjection. How does racial difference inform our view of America today? How might the American Revolution be considered incomplete? What aspects of our racial divide can be explained by the colony versus nation metaphor? How did/do ethics, science, media and creative expression reflect the idea that our nation is not so “indivisible” after all?

     

    These are the type of questions and conflicts that interest this course. Through close reading, shared experience, small group work, and other assignments, this course encourages you to craft, share, and discard your interpretations of the ever-growing collection of cultural narratives and social experiences marked by white supremacy, racial difference and/or bias.


    [1] The Declaration of Independence.