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Signature J-Term Courses set to Challenge Students on Today's Issues

Oct 29, 2020

Democracy in danger. Climate justice in cities. Race, protest and the media. An ongoing pandemic.

 

Covering relevant topics like these, an innovative program of “Signature” courses for January Term – in the works as part of the University of Virginia’s academic response to the coronavirus pandemic – is coming to fruition.

Professors from across Grounds, as well as guest instructors, are teaming up to offer interdisciplinary courses designed to appeal to a range of students by addressing some of today’s most urgent issues.

“These courses will explore some of today’s most relevant topics – from the science of pandemics, to racial justice, to the importance of democracy, to an examination of sustainable cities of the future,” Provost Liz Magill said in last week’s UVA Weekly video.

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

Among UVA’s many changes this year due to the pandemic, the shift to online instruction will apply to all 2021 J-Term classes, as it did for summer session and most fall classes.

Enrollment for the J-Term session, to be held Jan 4 through 15, opens Nov. 9. Course descriptions can be viewed online here.

As the administration first explained to the University community in June, this year’s regular tuition includes one J-Term course and one course in this summer’s Summer Session I at no additional charge, as long as students earn no more than 33 credits during the academic year. This plan is meant to accommodate students who might need to take a reduced course load during the fall and spring semesters, depending on their circumstances, so they can stay on track academically.

“Students might feel added pressure to keep up because of the compressed timeline of the semesters, but this path gives them more flexibility to succeed,” said Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Maïté Brandt-Pearce, also a professor of electrical engineering.

Brandt-Pearce and Brie Gertler, a philosophy professor who has held several administrative posts in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, including as acting dean in fall 2019, led a small committee of faculty to select the Signature courses.

Receiving some 90 submissions, the committee was “impressed by the range of creative proposals,” Gertler said.

The Signature J-Term courses will be offered in addition to regular January-term courses, which often focus on more specific topics.  

“These Signature J-Term courses are the opposite,” Brandt-Pearce said. “They cover broad, timely subjects, addressing current issues in our society, and are meant to appeal to a lot of students.”

“We know that both students and faculty thrive in the intensive learning format of J-Term,” said Dudley Doane, who directs UVA’s international, summer and special academic programs, “and are consequently excited to see increased access to J-Term and the introduction of new courses.”

Gertler and Brandt-Pearce said they anticipate higher-than-usual enrollment in J-Term. The 11 Signature courses being offered are designed to be accessible regardless of school or academic background. Some of them have co-instructors from different Arts & Sciences departments or different schools, including Architecture and Engineering.

“We see this as an opportunity,” Gertler said, “for students to expand their horizons beyond what they would ordinarily take.”

Shilpa Davé, an assistant professor of media studies and American studies, and Camilla Fojas, who chairs the Department of Media Studies and is also part of the American studies program, will teach “Race, Protest and the Media.” The course will explore key historical moments from the 1960s to the present, analyzing ways that different media frame and influence how protests centered on racial justice become touchstone generational events, Davé said.

She and Fojas are excited to teach together for the first time and to expand upon their efforts in hosting a fall 2019 conference on a similar topic.

“We were able to bring race and media scholars from different universities with some of our own faculty in Charlottesville [in 2019] to discuss the complex relations between race and media,” Davé said in an email. “The course is a chance to continue the conversation from scholars to our undergraduate students.”

“Contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter, marches against Asian xenophobia, and successful groundbreaking texts related to them, including ‘Black Panther’ comics and films and the book ‘Undocumented and Unafraid,’ about the immigrant youth movement, can be framed through key media moments of historical protest,” Davé said.

Fojas added, “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to continue conversations around race and media through the lens of protest.”

In the arena of science, associate professors of psychology Jessica Connelly and James Morris will teach “How to Build a Healthy Human Brain.”

This course, as described in the online list, “examines how early life experience shapes the function of our genome, impacts the development of brain systems involved in the complexities of human life, and sets the stage for our abilities to forge new social bonds that promote healthy lives and rewarding personal experiences.”

Connelly said, “It seemed particularly important in a time when many are struggling with understanding what is going on in the world around them” to offer a course like this. “Deep biological understanding about how you came to be provides a chance to better understand others, their actions and their choices,” she wrote in email.

She and Morris have collaborated in research, but not in teaching a course. Both have taught separate courses as College Fellows in the New Curriculum that Arts & Sciences has adopted.

“This course is unlike any we have imagined,” Connelly said. “Teaching online the past two semesters has really opened our eyes to new formats and new ways to create thought in the classroom. It is our hope that bringing science to students at UVA through guest lectures by the scientists who have led the fields we will explore will engage students in a way that is deep and memorable.”

Other Signature courses include: “Climate Justice in Cities: Designing for Systems Change,” co-taught by Barbara Brown Wilson and Jeana Ripple in the School of Architecture; “Whiteness: History of a Racial Category,” co-taught by religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt and Andrew Kahrl, a professor of history and African-American studies; and “Pandemics Beyond the Headlines: COVID-19,” co-taught by chemical engineering professor Roseanne Ford and politics professor David Leblang, who has faculty appointments in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Miller Center.

In addition, as a special event during J-Term, Larry Sabato, director of the UVA Center for Politics  and frequent media commentator on political events, will give a two-hour evening lecture in early January dedicated to the 2020 presidential election.

As the new program launches, Brandt-Pearce said she has been heartened by “the creativity and generosity of the faculty and their willingness to step up, to do this for the students and for the University.”