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VSA 2016 Session 1

Class Placementvsa session I copy

Classes fill quickly! Please consider your course choices carefully. While we will do our best to place you in your first choice class, it may be filled and we often have to place students in 2nd or 3rd
choice classes. As you review these course descriptions, please rank-order as many classes as you’d like, knowing that you may not get your first choice. Your deposit becomes non-refundable once we place you in a class that you have ranked. So, only rank classes that you are truly willing to take, and pay for!

View the VSA waiting list policy.

Cultural Linguistics

Linguistics, Anthropology

Why do “dumb” characters on TV often talk with Southern accents; why is the tough guy often from “the Bronx?” Relatively small variations in how people speak are connected to larger issues of race, gender, class, education, and power. In other words, language says a lot about who we are (and not all of it is true). In this class, we will study language the way scientists do. You will learn to transcribe speech into the International Phonetic Alphabet to better understand dialectical differences in yourself and others, listen for and replicate those differences through hands-on activities, and finally consider the complex interactions between the way people speak and their implications for human culture and identity.

-Mike Kohut

Pop Culture and Philosophy

Philosophy, Media Studies

Do Marvel comics teach us anything about metaphysics? What might Plato or Hobbes have to say to or about the popular television series Scandal? When we evaluate what Foucault’s account of panopticon might mean for Facebook, we will–inversely–have the opportunity to reflect upon popular culture by way of philosophy. From exploring how contemporary obsession with vampires (Twilight, Vampire Diaries) and zombies (Walking Dead, Zombieland) reflect Descartes’ mind-body distinction, to critically examining Keeping Up with the Kardashians in light of existentialist philosophy, this course will provide an introduction to a range of thinkers and theories in western philosophy by way of popular culture.

-Brandy Daniels

Religious Imagery in Graphic Literature – Course canceled

Literature, History, Religious Studies

Comic books and graphic novels are fun to read, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they can provide key insights into culture. Graphic novels have a little-known history of drawing from ancient mythologies and narratives about religion to make a larger point about the world around them (such as the way the writers of Superman used Jewish symbolism to criticize the fascism of Hitler). In this course, you will learn about this history and see how authors today use this genre to address larger social and ethical issues. You will hone your literary analysis skills through engaging discussions and presentations. And you will collaborate with your peers to craft your own story — trying your hand at your own (literary) battle for truth and justice today.

-Chris Paris

The Craft of Fiction

Creative Writing, Literature

What makes a story interesting and engaging? What techniques do writers use so that readers feel like they are inside the mind of someone who may be very different from themselves? How do authors create characters that may make poor decisions, but that readers still care about? In this course, you will examine stories in order to better understand the craft of writing fiction, including the importance of point of view, pacing, description, and narrative arc. You will also develop and revise stories of your own, which we will read and discuss together in class. Ultimately, we will explore the impulses that lead each of you to write in the first place, while also considering the ways writing fiction might deepen our understanding of our own lives and communities.

-Lee Conell

Stories from Auschwitz: History and Literature of the Holocaust

History, Literature, Religious Studies

How do you begin to make sense of an atrocity that seems to lack any discernible meaning? There are no easy answers to the questions the Holocaust asks of us, but there are stories — stories from Auschwitz and other concentration camps, stories of victims, stories of survivors, and stories from their descendants. Needless to say, the content of this class will be difficult, and you should keep that in mind before deciding whether to sign up for it. While it will certainly involve some background history, we will spend most of our time reading and discussing memoirs, semi-autobiographical narratives, and imaginative fiction. We will also discuss at length some of the complex issues these stories raise, such as conceptions of God and justice in Jewish theology, the role of memory in personal identity, and how exclusion and alienation can bring a people together by ripping society apart. Don’t expect easy answers to these and other questions — maybe no answers at all — but this class will help you think about history, life, and literature with greater empathy and depth.

-Lucas Wilson

Game Theory


Game Theory is the mathematics of strategy and rational decision-making. Game theorists use math to try to understand and respond to human behavior in situations both common and strange, such as the soccer team that tried to win a tournament by scoring on its own goal. We will learn about common and uncommon scenarios that involve game theory (and maybe create some of our own), and we will practice expressing these scenarios in mathematical terms. Ultimately, this class will help you think more strategically by learning how to model human behavior mathematically, taking into account what we know and what we might not know, in order to better predict, and even achieve, the best possible outcome.

-Zach Gaslowitz

Complex Systems Theory

Complexity Science, Sociology, Economics

In this class you will enter into the emerging field of complex systems research, which includes subjects as diverse as ant colonies, the internet, and the neurons in your brain. You will learn what a complex system is, and how scientists try to measure and define complexity. You will use some of the same tools they use to try to explain how and why seemingly disconnected events affect each other (why, for example, an outbreak of Avian Flu in China might mean higher profits for organic farmers in the U.S.). Not only will you explore current topics in complex systems research, and use programming to model how complexity emerges from small and simple interactions, you will gain a new way of thinking about the world.

-Ashlyn Karan

Introduction to Nanotechnology

Engineering, Nanotechnology

In the world of nanotechnology, less is more. This course will introduce you to the broad field of science and engineering at the atomic scale. You will explore nanoscale technology through cutting-edge examples and hands-on experience in self-assembly, surface science, molecular engineering, nanomaterials fabrication, and nanobiotechnology. We will explore questions such as: What makes certain molecules self-assemble into useful nanoscale structures? How do you design a surface to specifically detect a virus? Can we create materials that contain as much surface area as a football field in a single gram? You will discover the answers to these and other problems in the intricate science of small things.

-Ian Njoroge and Max Robinson

Neuroscience and the Psychology of Memory

Psychology, Neuroscience, Child Studies

Scientists have learned a lot in recent years about how memories are encoded and retrieved, but there is still a lot that we do not understand (like why you can remember the way your birthday cake tasted last year, but not the name of a person you just met). In this course, we will examine the cognitive and neural foundations of memory as well as how memory changes across the lifespan. Some of the topics we will cover include the different kinds of memory, how they relate to brain anatomy, and how scientists measure memory through psychological experiments as well as high-tech tools, like functional magnetic imaging and/or electrophysiology. You’ll do the work of a real neuroscientist as you read scholarly articles, conduct experiments, collect data, and collaborate with your peers to try and solve the mysteries of memory.

-Lewis Baker

Introduction to Applied Statistics

Mathematics, Quantitative Research Methods, Psychology

Media stories about “the latest scientific findings” can range from the plausible to the silly. This class will help you learn to separate truth from fiction by introducing you to the basic statistical methods and tools used in psychological  research. You will learn to use R, a free and powerful statistical software package, to conduct and interpret basic scientific statistical tests. You will begin to recognize the difference between proper and improper use of data, especially the distinction between correlation and causation (e.g., why margarine consumption does not actually lead to more divorces in the state of Maine). For the final project, you will formulate and answer your own scientific research question using these new tools and real psychology data.

-Mason Garrison

The Changing Earth: Human-Environment Interactions

Ecology, Computer Modeling, Behavioral Studies

Most ecology courses focus on watersheds, bunnies, and food webs. What they often leave out is us. Humans! We are a part of the ecosystem too. We change the natural world, and we change in response to the changes we have caused. The earth is a complex system made up of interconnected and interdependent subsystems, and in this class you will use scientific data-collection and modeling technologies — especially geospatial and satellite imaging — to learn to think deeply about how these human and environmental systems interact. You will explore earth from space to study the past, better know the present, and begin to solve complex multi-stakeholder human-environmental problems for the future.

-Emily Burchfield